EPA Homeland Security Research

Technology for Community Resiliency

By Paul Lemieux

This week I was honored to participate in the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Demo Day. From finding an open gas station to finding a safe place to sleep at night following a disaster or finding a vehicle you can rent by the hour, participants shared a variety of amazing technology applications to help make communities more resilient in the aftermath of disaster.

Me giving a presentation on I-WASTE at the White House's Old Executive Office Building.

Paul giving a presentation on I-WASTE at the White House’s Old Executive Office Building.

While there were some great private sector tools from big innovators like Airbnb, Google, Microsoft, SeeClickFix, and TaskRabbit there were just as many amazing tools from government innovators, too.

An example of some of the government tools highlighted during the demo:

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) announced GeoQ, a tool that crowdsources geo-tagged photos of disaster-affected areas to assess damage over large regions. Developed in coordination with NGA, the Presidential Innovation Fellow Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other disaster analysts, GeoQ improves the speed and quality of disaster-related data coordination by using a data crowd-sharing framework. Programmers can use the existing services and add features to customize the GeoQ code for their own community.

The U.S. Geological Service (USGS) highlighted ShakeMap and other post-earthquake information tools that offer rapid situational awareness for disaster response and recovery. Using data from seismic monitoring systems maintained by USGS and its state and university partners, ShakeMap provides a rapid graphical estimate of ground shaking in an affected region on the web within minutes of an event. The maps and underlying data, which can be downloaded in numerous formats for use in GIS and other applications, are also the basis for ShakeCast—which enables emergency managers at a growing number of companies, response organizations, and local governments to automatically receive USGS shaking data and generate their own customized impact alerts for their facilities.

And I showcased EPA’s I-WASTE, a flexible, web-based, planning and decision-making tool to address disaster waste management issues. I-WASTE offers emergency responders, industry representatives, and responsible officials reliable information on waste characterization, treatment, and disposal options, as well as guidance on how to incorporate waste management into planning and response for natural disasters, terrorist attacks and animal disease outbreaks.

It is clear that there are a number of public and private organizations working together with individuals and communities around the country to ensure that together we are prepared and ready to respond to the next disaster we might face.

Watch a video of how I-WASTE can help your community, embedded below, or go to http://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/homeland/clean-up.htm

Paul Lemieux, Ph.D. works on issues related to clean up after chemical/biological/radiological attacks and foreign animal disease outbreaks. Paul has also been working to develop computer-based decision support tools to aid decision makers in responding to wide-area contamination incidents. He is the Associate Division Director of the Decontamination and Consequence Management Division of U.S. EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: Monitoring Drinking Water Systems

By Robert Janke

Water TowerA reliable source of clean, drinkable water is a must for any city or community to survive and prosper.  We take for granted the clean, drinkable water delivered from the tap whenever we want to quench that thirst. But few people recognize or understand the complexity of our nation’s water system and what goes into the operations required to deliver this essential human need in an unfailing way, day in and day out.

As one of our nation’s critical infrastructures, water distribution systems face security threats ranging from natural disasters, like hurricanes and extreme weather, to intentional acts of sabotage or terrorism.

Obviously, it’s important to be able to quickly detect, assess, and respond to any kind of water contamination event no matter the source. But in order to do that, it is essential to have a real-time understanding of what is going on in the water distribution system. This would help water utilities be better prepared to respond to natural disasters or intentional acts of sabotage and could also alert them to other problems like leaks in the distribution system or water quality problems.

So how do we get a real-time understanding of water system operations? We integrate a utility’s infrastructure model with their real-time or Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) data. We are testing and evaluating our real-time modeling software tools at the Northern Kentucky Water District (NKWD).

We are demonstrating how our real-time modeling software tools can be used to provide water utility operators with a better understanding of their water system and its operation. With our software tools, utility operators will have a “flight simulator” type of capability which will allow them to be better prepared to respond to emergencies and plan for the future.

To gain this understanding of the water system, we have developed an object-oriented software library called EPANET-RTX (EPANET “Real-Time eXtension”). RTX, for short, joins operational data from an already existing data system with an infrastructure model to improve operations and enhance security in a more sustainable and productive manner. RTX is built on the industry standard for distribution system modeling, EPANET, and leverages years of real-time modeling research and development efforts conducted by EPA.

RTX is open source software, and you can find it here. By making it open source, EPA hopes commercial companies will evaluate the technology and use it to develop commercial products.  We will continue to develop the RTX libraries which the water community will be able to use to (1) help water utilities field verify (validate) their infrastructure models and (2) develop RTX-based applications. These RTX-based applications will enable water utilities to better manage, operate, and secure their water systems.

To learn more about EPA’s research to keep our water systems safe and secure, please visit: epa.gov/nhsrc.

About the Author: Robert Janke is a research scientist intent on making sure our water stays clean and drinkable. He works in EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center located in Cincinnati, OH. Scientists in Cincinnati have been working on clean water issues for more than 100 years. Along with Rob Janke, the RTX project is being led by a multi-disciplinary team composed of Steve Allgeier, Michael Tryby, Lewis Rossman, Terra Haxton, and John Hall.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Liquids, Fumigants, or Foggers: Decontaminating Ricin

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Line of police tape with emergency responders in the far backgroundYou can’t watch the news lately and not hear the word “ricin.” Letters laced with ricin have been sent to the President, other federal officials, and New York City’s Mayor. And while the letters have not reached their intended recipients, ricin can contaminate mail sorters and buildings.

What is ricin? Where do you even find it? These were the questions I asked when I first heard a letter addressed to the President was contaminated with ricin. From an intensive google search, I learned ricin comes from castor beans. It is extremely toxic (a few particles the size of table salt grains can kill a human) and the effects depend on whether it is inhaled, ingested, or injected.  The ricin that contaminated the letters, in these cases, was in the form of a powder, but ricin can also be used by terrorists as mist, a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid, too.

While everyone is deemed safe at this point, an element I wondered about was who decontaminates the mail sorters and equipment the letters came into contact with, or the buildings where it was produced, and how? This is where EPA’s homeland security research comes into play.

While the “who” part depends on where the incident happens, the “how” is being researched day in and day out – looking for the best sampling methods and decontamination techniques.

One focus of homeland security research at EPA examines the efficacy of different decontamination methods, for example, using liquids, fumigants, or foggers. Scientists and engineers have identified ways to contain decontaminants and ways to dispose of the waste after decontamination. Hydrogen peroxide, pH-adjusted bleach, and chlorine-dioxide fumigation decontamination technologies are techniques researchers have tested and found to be successful decontaminants in different scenarios.

Researchers here have also developed a suite of decision support tools to assist in the safe disposal of waste and debris that might be generated during a contamination incident. The research helps decision-makers make the most appropriate choices for each situation and gives them the tools to make sure the environment is safe following an event.

While the health of those who may have been exposed is always first and foremost during a situation like this, responders also want to make sure they can decontaminate effected buildings, rooms, and equipment and mitigate any subsequent exposures. To learn more about EPA’s homeland security indoor and outdoor cleanup research,  please visit: http://www.epa.gov/nhsrc/aboutdecon.html

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry is a frequent blogger covering water issues, but has recently expanded to share how researchers and engineers keep us safe from all the bad stuff, specifically in events of terrorism – chemical, biological, or radiological – or natural events like hurricanes, earthquakes and nuclear accidents.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA’s Homeland Security Research Center Turns 10 Today!

By Jonathan G. Herrmann, P.E., BCEE

When I watched Claire Danes accept an Emmy Award for her role as Carrie Mathison in the television series “HOMELAND” last Sunday evening, I was again reminded that homeland security is neither out of sight nor out of mind.

In fact, today, EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center turns 10!

I had the great honor of being one of the Center’s founding members when it was formally established on September 28, 2002.  We drew upon the experience and expertise of the scientific, technical, and administrative staff from across EPA’s Office of Research and Development in creating the Center.  Our near-term goal was to put in place a talented team of individuals to support the Agency in responding to the tragedy of 9/11 and the Amerithrax attacks later in 2001.

The events of 9/11 were devastating to the American public and their impact was felt around the World.  Amerithrax killed five people and contaminated at least 17 buildings with weaponized anthrax spores.  These incidents, along with the possibility of other attacks, required the U.S. Government—at all levels—to do what was necessary to respond and recover—and prevent attacks from happening again in the United States.

EPA continues to play a critical role in protecting the country’s water infrastructure and has the responsibility to address the intentional contamination of buildings, water systems and public areas.  These activities are informed and supported by our research results and scientific and technical expertise.

Our work is guided by laws, Presidential Directives, the National Response Framework, and is consistent with the National Security Strategy.  EPA scientists and engineers provide guidance, tools and technical support to decision makers at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure that decontamination is as cost-effective and timely as possible.  Together with our partners in EPA’s Program Offices and Regions, we enhance the nation’s capability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from both man-made and natural disasters.

Events like Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010) and, more recently, the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan (2011) tested our capabilities like never before.  Along with Agency peers and colleagues from across the federal government, EPA scientists and engineers stepped up to these extraordinary challenges with their time, skills, expertise, energy, and dedication.

I am proud of EPA’s homeland security research efforts and the contributions that the Center has made.  Our efforts strengthen our nation’s resiliency and advance EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment.

About the author:  Jonathan Herrmann is Director, National Homeland Security Research Center, EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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