Saving Lives by Moving Science and Technology to the Frontlines
(Upbeat Music) [Julie Brewer] Welcome, and thank you for joining our R&D Showcase Series Four discussion on Saving Lives by Moving Science and Technology to the frontlines. I'm Julie Brewer, the former director of the DHS National Labs. And current Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Chief of Staff for the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. I will be the moderator for our conversation today.
Let me share some brief context before we get started. To prepare against future threats, our discussion focuses on how investments in DHS laboratory research and science are protecting our way of life by providing valuable tools and capabilities to enhance decision-making, risk analysis, and threat characterization and detection. Here's the thing.
We want you to know how the country relies on S&Ts world-class laboratory system of research and facilities and body of knowledge to do the complex science and turn research into action. Our research reduces risks, keeps our community safe and saves lives. Our expert panel today is ready to go. And will address the many capabilities and contributions being made on behalf of the general public and nationwide Homeland Security professionals, including our first responders. I'll now introduce our panel from the Department of Homeland Security. First, we have Helen Mearns, our deputy director of Chemical Security Analysis Center, better known as CSAC.
Alice Hong, our director National Urban Security Technology Laboratory, or NUSTL. And finally Dr. Chris Smith, director, Transportation Security Lab TSL.
Now, I'd like to start with today's changing security landscape. And get to know how S&Ts national labs are protecting the country against future threats and disruptions to our way of life. Now let's get started.
Alice, I'm going to start with you. What kinds of investments is NUSTL making in research and technology development to support our communities and first responders? [Alice Hong] Thanks Julie, responders turn to NUSTL to keep their fingers on the pulse of technology innovations and scientific guidance that's critical to protecting our communities from national emergency, such as our current COVID pandemic, to natural threats, such as floods and wildfires to even hostile acts or acts of terrorism using WMD and even drones. Our location is in downtown New York city, but that, coupled with our partnerships with some of the premier public safety agencies in the world, allow us to use our city as a unique urban test bed for researching and assessing Homeland Security tools and technologies. It allows us to essentially test technologies using a wide range of operationally relevant scenarios in an equally large range of real-world environments from comms denied underground tunnels, to high RF noise environments. And we're testing everything from first responder PPE, such as technical eyewear and firefighting gloves to blast resistant, trash receptacles that you see in cities to far more complex systems like radiation detection portals.
We're really addressing almost anything and everything that's needed to keep our emergency responders and communities safe and protected. Julie, you also mentioned the changing landscape. I want to highlight how NUSTL prides itself on our agility and responsiveness to the emergency response community's needs. Metropolitan business processes and our teaming arrangements with subject matter experts at our sister labs, who we'll be hearing from. The interagency academia, they all enable us to quickly pivot our work to address current events that are at the top of your news feeds. We're asked to provide knowledge products and test tools to help with some of the many events that unfolded over the last year.
The pandemic, wildfires, civil unrest, you name it. Our lab has to be responsive to the changing threat environment. We might be focused on providing something like actionable guidance for a dirty bomb response one day.
And then the next day they ask to test body-worn cameras. But most recently the Miami condo collapse is at the top of everyone's news feeds. So, search and rescue tools have been of high interest to the responder community. Our lab has tested technologies, specifically ones that were deployed at the Surfside condos to detect survivors under collapsed debris. We've also teamed up with responders and technology providers. And have evaluated the use of small UIs or drones for search and rescue operations.
These small commercial drones are everywhere. You can buy them at Target, Amazon. And they're really great effective tools for search and rescue operations, because they can get very close to a particular incident without further disturbing any debris. And they can search the insides of buildings and tunnels. And they can really significantly reduce risks of harming potential survivors, or sending first responders into situations that are already really dangerous.
[Julie Brewer] That's awesome, Alice. And what a few great examples of putting research into action. Helen, do you have any examples like Alice from CSAC? [Helen Mearns] Thank you, Julie, yes, I do. So, just to back up just a second, chemical security analysis. So we collect and curate chemical data.
We use that to generate meaningful assessments, identify gaps and develop solutions. So a couple of things, we have a provisional patent for a cyanide exposure test strip. So this will be super helpful to first responders, firefighters, victims of fires. So it's a rapid test so that they will know that they've been exposed to cyanide and that they need the antidote. Another example is a few years ago, you may remember there was the plot with regard to an Australian airliner where someone tried to smuggle aboard a device that would have generated a gas-forming reaction, released a lethal gas within the passenger cabin. So, the Chemical Security Analysis Center working with our sister labs and our international partners, we studied gas-forming reactions and devices such as that, to understand what they do and how the gas travels in closed spaces.
And that was used then by the Transportation Security Administration to develop solutions to keep air travel, not only secure but safe, thank you. [Julie Brewer] That's awesome, Helen. And speaking of a sister lab, we have Dr. Chris Smith from Transportation Security Lab.
Can you give us an example of putting research into action from TSL, Chris? [Christopher Smith] Absolutely Julie, as you know, the Transportation Security Administration relies upon TSL to test and certify almost all of its screening technologies. But before you can get to that point of certification, you need to help the systems developers tune and adjust that technology to meet those very demanding requirements of TSA. That's where our scientists and engineers come in. These folks know the technologies extremely well.
They know their capabilities. They know their limitations. And they know how to help those vendors adjust and tune those systems so that they will meet those requirements. Another thing that TSL does with its research and development, is we take a look at those TSA technologies, those gold standard technologies, best in the world. And we try to figure out how we can apply those technologies with a little bit of modification to other needs.
Stadium security, VIP security. We look at those technologies, we adjust them. We tune them to these other applications. And that's how we assist not just TSA, but a whole spectrum of partners within the Homeland Security enterprise. [Julie Brewer] That's really interesting, Chris.
And let's pivot a little bit to how things have really changed for all of us over the last 15 months. The national labs have had to pivot and move fast to accelerate solutions. To continue to meet the growing operational demands, why is it important for our laboratories to have modern, agile and resilient infrastructure? Chris, let's continue with you. What do you think? [Christopher Smith] Well, so the systems developers right now are very keen on introducing machine learning into their systems.
This allows them to very quickly train a system and deliver it to us for testing and evaluation. The problem that we have at TSL is that testing systems that are based upon machine learning requires a tremendous amount of data. Because we don't want these machine learning algorithms to do something unexpected. In order to test as efficiently as we currently do, we need to figure out a way to utilize synthetic data.
Utilize simulants, utilize expedited test and evaluation methodologies to test these systems. And that all requires an advanced and state-of-the-art laboratory infrastructure with the R&D, with the foundation R&D to support that test and evaluation. [Julie Brewer] That's great, Chris. Helen, what about you at CSAC? How important is resilient infrastructure in this changing chemical landscape? [Helen Mearns] It's very important, Julie.
And also our demand signal is growing. It seems exponentially. The Chemical Security Analysis Center is young.
We were established in 2006. And just within the past four years, most especially, we did an assessment for New York City for their planners of the New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square. The FBI and other major metropolitan areas learned of that.
And so then Los Angeles wanted us to do something for their Rose Bowl Parade, and San Francisco for the Gay Pride Parade and Las Vegas. And then another example, perhaps a bigger example and something that concerns the nation and everyone, all of our partners and allies around the world is climate change. Last year was the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. Every time there is a hurricane threatening the United States or its territories, the Chemical Security Analysis Center is doing an assessment to allow the emergency responders to be pre-planning and aware of the chemical infrastructure that may be impacted. Well, on top of the hurricane season, now we have fire seasons even in areas of the country that haven't been impacted by that in the past. And again, then this year now we have extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest.
Chemicals are all around us. They're produced in bulk and they're transported across the country every day. So these effects on infrastructure have to be known and assessed. All of this getting back to what Chris Smith was talking about at TSL with big data, we generate tremendous amounts of data.
And then with regard to handling the data, what comes with that is a need for improved computing power. [Julie Brewer] It's really interesting, Helen. I've been thinking a little bit about what Alice was talking about at the beginning of our questions.
And Alice, she spoke a lot about partnerships and how important partnerships are. Knowing this and that they're essential to a whole of government R&D approach. How are the labs working with emergency responders and the technology development community to leverage this new science and technology over the past 15 months? [Alice Hong] So Julie, I like to think that we're at NUSTL bridging the gap between the technology developers and the public safety community. We do this by working really closely with both the national responder community and industry. It's sort of a push-pull relationship where we're keeping up with the latest advances in technology development, while also working closely with first responders to understand their operational challenges, and their needs, and then feeding that information back to the technology development community, so that they can develop improved products.
That feedback loop enables them to develop these tools that will have real utility in the field. So, when DHS S&T funds the development of new technology, our lab often executes what we call operational field assessments. Where responders actually use the technology prototypes in operational scenarios in their representative operational or operating environments. But the data and feedback we collect from the end users in this case, first responders, can inform critical enhancements to those technologies before they're commercialized. The developers really appreciate this, because it gives them one last bite of the apple in terms of getting the product just right.
And of course, most importantly, it benefits the responders themselves because they get a product that does what it's supposed to, so that they can protect themselves while keeping America safe. I'll give you a quick science and technology example that comes to mind, and that's innovating for wildland fires or wildland firefighters. Our New York City-based lab focuses primarily on urban issues. And normally people don't think wildland fires and urban issues. But it is a growing urban threat for major cities like LA, San Diego, San Francisco, and other west coast fire departments.
We're seeing these firefighters are doing their jobs while wearing essentially bandanas or handkerchiefs because the traditional PPE such as SCBA, just aren't practical to wear during wildland fire operations. The immense size of wildland fires differs quite drastically from structural building fires that are very confined. It is super physically demanding work where wildland firefighters need to be agile, because they're working just crazy long hours. And sometimes these long hours for weeks and covering literally miles of ground. Currently the only NIOSH approved respirator out there is SCBA. And again, just not practical to use.
But these bandanas do not protect against many of the toxins present in smoke. As a department, it's our duty really to protect responders on the frontlines to keep America safe. And for wildland firefighters, I think that we can do better. I mentioned earlier that our labs test DHS funded technologies, and we're doing exactly that on this front with an operational field assessment of wildland firefighter respirator scarfs, to address this really important capability gap.
[Julie Brewer] That is awesome. Chris, I know that this whole-of-government approach in partnership with industry is critical to what you do at Transportation Security Lab. Do you have any examples along the lines of what Alice shared with us? [Christopher Smith] Yeah, let me just expand upon that a little bit.
Partners are critical to us. Private industry is coming up with some very innovative technologies, some very interesting ways of detecting threats. And those threats are changing all the time. The terrorists are always looking for new ways to attack the Homeland. And fortunately our businesses big and small are figuring out ways to defeat those threats.
I want to emphasize though, that this is not just U.S. firms that are doing this. This is firms that are international. We've got partners in foreign countries, in friendly foreign countries who are helping to develop this technology. And we're helping them validate that technology possibly to sell to the Transportation Security Administration, possibly to protect their own airports abroad.
So, we have a lot of very critical partnerships to move the technology forward, to keep us one step ahead of the terrorist. [Julie Brewer] Thanks Chris and we only have about one to two minutes remaining. So, I wanted to close out with each of you for one final thought. When you're thinking about securing our future and why S&T labs are needed to protect our way of life. What's your key takeaway for the audience as we end today? Helen, I'll begin with you.
[Helen Mearns] Thank you, Julie. So chemicals, I'll focus on chemicals. They're all around us. They're in the cleaning products in your house. They're in the products you use in your gardens and on your yards.
As I mentioned earlier, they're produced in bulk, shipped in bulk around the country every day. So, at DHS, what we're doing is we are anticipating what could happen accidentally due to a force of nature, or due to an intentional chemical release. And by anticipating that, we will be prepared and hopefully prevent the next chemical catastrophe, thank you. [Julie Brewer] Thanks Helen. Chris, what are your thoughts? [Christopher Smith] You know Julie the security of our Homeland depends upon constant vigilance, constant advancement of the science and technology that constantly improves our defenses against an agile and a very clever adversary.
So, the point I'd like to make is that this is an enduring task. It's not about simply producing one solution and being done. It's about constantly going back, refining, improving, and making that technology better.
[Julie Brewer] Thanks Chris. and finally Alice, what are your final thoughts? [Alice Hong] When an incident happens, you don't call DHS or the FBI or federal agencies. There's no phone number for that.
We call 911. We rely on our state and local first responders as that first frontline. And so they take care of us.
They protect us. They protect our way of life. And who protects them? And I like to think that the lab does the work to ensure that they do their jobs more safely and have the tools and technologies that they need to do it. [Julie Brewer] That was excellent and a great summation at the end. Thank you so much, Alice.
And our time is up. We do have a follow-up slide for you to learn more about how S&Ts National Labs do the science to keep us safe and how to follow our R&D showcase. On behalf of Helen, Alice, and Chris, thank you again for joining our DHS Whole-of-Government R&D Showcase. And we hope you have a wonderful day.