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ECBC to Test SNIFFER Chemical Detector for Baltimore Transit System

ECBC Chemical Branch Research SNIFFER Testing
Eric Bruni from the Research & Technology CBR Filtration Branch performs confidence check procedures for the detector prior to testing. Credit: ECBC

Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) has been funded by Department of Homeland Security Office of Health Affairs (DHS/OHA) Chemical Defense Program to test the detector against various toxic industrial chemicals, interferents and chemical warfare agents for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA).

MTA is planning to install the detector in the Baltimore transit system in late 2014 or early 2015.

“They [DHS] could have gone to anyone for the Baltimore testing, but they chose to come back to us. That is a big kudos for the ECBC team,” said Kerrin Dame, physical scientist with ECBC’s Detection Engineering Branch.

The performance specifications for the commercial chemical vapor detector were developed by DHS/OHA in support of a grant issued by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to a few major metropolitan cities for the purpose of purchasing chemical detectors. ECBC developed the test methodologies and standardized test plan to meet those specifications.

“We were approached by DHS to participate in the testing on a recommendation from Army Materiel Systems Analysis Activity (AMSAA), who has partnered with DHS in the past and who is in our Army network,” said Nichole Mortin, chemical engineer with the Detection Engineering Branch. “They recommended us to DHS for the testing because we have extensive expertise with chemical detector testing, and we developed the standardized test plan.”

The strategic purpose for this laboratory test and evaluation is for MTA to have full awareness of the detectors’ capabilities and limitations in order to determine how the MTA and local first responders will respond to a chemical threat. Often times, detector test and evaluation are used purely for performance evaluation of the technology. Although performance evaluation is important, applying the data to response planning is actually just as important. For example, detectors evaluated to have poor sensitivity to chemical threat agents (e.g., nerve, mustard, hydrogen cyanide) while exposed to common interferents (e.g., cleaning agents, paints) should inform users to avoid using such products in the venue. In adjudicating whether an activated alarm is false or true, alarm adjudication checks should then include such products.

The original test plan was written using the Sensor Nodes Inform and Facilitate Fast Emergency Response (SNIFFER) chemical detection system. ECBC will use the standard test methodology piloted on the SNIFFER to test the SAFESITE Sentry™ detector. It is also confirmation of the quality of customer service ECBC engineers and scientists provide to their customers. “When we finished the original SNIFFER pilot testing for DHS, we handed them the standard test methodology,” said Dame. “They could have gone to anyone for the Baltimore testing, but they chose to come back to us. That is a big kudos for the ECBC team. If you work hard for the customer, give 110 percent and do a great job, you will get repeat business.”

An environmental chamber provides a controlled and stable test setup for chemical feeds that could be used in a “plug-and-play” manner for future detector tests.

The testing is a collaborative effort between the Detection Engineering Branch, Protective Factor and Toxic Chambers Branch, and Research & Technology (R&T) Directorate’s Chemical, Biological, and Radiation Filtration Branch. The R&T Directorate’s laboratory facility was used and personnel from both Directorates served as scientists on the program. They were also partners on the SNIFFER test.

“DHS was very happy with the initial SNIFFER test results, so we were pleased to work with the same group in R&T for the Baltimore test,” said Dame.

Although DHS is funding the program, the MTA is the main customer and the end user of the detector. It is important that ECBC stay in close contact with MTA representatives to provide support and answer questions as MTA builds their concept of operations (CONOPs) plan. The CONOPs is what first responders will use to react to a chemical agent threat. “The testing is only part of the whole detection system for Baltimore,” said Dame. “There are several things occurring with the pilot program for the city, from determining the CONOPs for using the detector, to integrating it into their subway system, to developing air flow and monitoring simulations for their subway stations.”

Baltimore is the first transit city to go through the test program. The SAFESITE Sentry™ detector will be integrated into their overall response system, which includes other detectors, cameras, and communications systems. It is designed to detect chemical agents and toxic industrial chemicals, as well as differentiate them from common interferent chemicals like floor wax, cleaners and paint fumes. Since there can be false-positive alarms for some interferent chemicals (such as cleaners), part of the test process is to determine the expected response for common chemicals. “For example, the schedule might be that they clean the station on Tuesday, and the detector may alarm to those cleaning products,”said Mortin. “For the MTA, knowing what kinds of chemicals may be present in their normal, everyday environment and the anticipated detector responses should be indicated in the CONOPs to prevent responses to false positive alarms.”

Testing began in December and is expected to last five months. “We are planning to have the testing completed by May, and to provide the customer the data and report over the summer, and they may be installing the system in the fall or in early 2015,” said Dame.

The test setup has a flexible design, so this type of testing could be performed or replicated for other customers. “We developed a set of test procedures and a test setup that would allow various chemical detectors to be plugged into the system,” said Mortin. “If another city were to come to ECBC for a similar test, then we would just integrate their detector into our system. This ‘plug-and-play’ benefit was an expectation when we designed it.”

Mortin feels fortunate to be working on this project as a young professional. “I feel very lucky to be working on projects that are new, interesting and high-profile,” she said. “Getting to know the customer, meeting people who are using the system that we fielded, and seeing how other government organizations work together are huge benefits of this type of project.”

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