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March 2008

Transportation Lab Seeks Radical Change at Airport Checkpoints

Reported by Stew Magnuson

LOS ANGELES — Transportation Security Laboratory Director Susan Hallowell would like to see the day when airline passengers no longer have to take their shoes off after standing in a long line at airport security checkpoints.

To that end, she would like to combine the line and an array of sensors into what she calls a “tunnel of truth.”

The concept — with the somewhat Orwellian name — would have passengers stand on a conveyor belt moving under an archway as various sensors scan them for weapons, bombs or other prohibited items. By the time they step out of the tunnel, they have been thoroughly checked out, she said at a homeland security science and technology conference sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.

“You’re in line anyway … why not enclose that in a little glass thing and do your analysis there?” she asked. The lab has given a grant to Penn State University to study the concept, she added.

The lab, located in Atlantic City, N.J., is responsible for testing current screening devices and developing new technologies for both airports and for other public transportation.

Among the new technologies that could be placed in the tunnels are backscatter X-ray machines, which peer underneath clothes, and passive and active millimeter wave sensors that can see the outlines of concealed metal objects. These technologies are already being used in pilot programs.

Puffer machines are also in use and dislodge molecules from the residue gathered during the manufacture of explosives. The human body also gives off a heat signature, and sensors could follow the thermal plume coming off the body as the passenger moves through the tunnel, she noted. Actual bombs, if they are hidden on the body, give off their own heat signatures, and could be detected as well.

Before the concept can move forward, the laboratory will have to perfect all the sub-systems that would go into the so-called tunnel, she said. Meanwhile, the lab continues to test machines designed to check shoes for explosives without passengers having to take them off. So far, it has not found an acceptable solution.
“We’re still working on shoes. We’re not there yet,” she said.

Science Fiction Mavens Offer Far Out Homeland Security Advice

Now a fixture at Department of Homeland Security science and technology conferences, SIGMA is a loosely affiliated group of science fiction writers who are offering pro bono advice to anyone in government who want their thoughts on how to protect the nation.

The group has the ear of Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Jay Cohen, head of the science and technology directorate, who has said he likes their unconventional thinking. Members of the group recently offered a rambling, sometimes strident string of ideas at a panel discussion promoting the group at the DHS science and technology conference.

Among the group’s approximately 24 members is Larry Niven, the bestselling and award-winning author of such books as “Ringworld” and “Lucifer’s Hammer,” which he co-wrote with SIGMA member Jerry Pournelle.

Niven said a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.

“The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway,” Niven said.

“Do you know how politically incorrect you are?” Pournelle asked.

“I know it may not be possible to use this solution, but it does work,” Niven replied.

“I cannot guarantee I’m going to be a great help to Homeland Security,” Niven said earlier.

Pournelle said that once mobile phone technology and the devices tacked on them to take pictures and record video become more ubiquitous, then ordinary citizens will be empowered to take security into their own hands — a prediction some have said already has come to pass.

“My guess is we won’t need quite so many paid agents of the state to do that for us, which means maybe we can try being a republic instead of an incompetent empire,” he said, then railed against the Transportation Security Administration for treating passengers like “subjects” rather than “citizens.”

The 45-minute panel discussion quickly deteriorated as federal, local and state homeland security officials, and at least one congressional aid, attempted to ask questions, which were largely ignored.

Instead the writers used their time to pontificate on a variety of tangentially related topics, including their past roles advising the government, predictions in their stories that have come to pass, the demise of the paperback book market, and low-cost launch into space.

David Brin, keeping on the topic of empowering citizens with mobile phone technology, delivered a self-described “rant” on the lack of funds being spent to support citizen reservists to back up the military, homeland security officials and first responders in times of crisis.

“It is impossible for you to succeed without us!” he shouted at the assembled officials, while banging his fist on the table and at one point jumping off his chair to wave a mobile phone in their faces.

SIGMA is the brainchild of Arlan Andrews Sr., who noted that many of the writers have advanced degrees, have jobs with the government or have been hired to advise the government in the past.

“If you like the ideas these people have, and you’re from the government, feel free to come talk to them,” Andrews said.

Mass Notification Alert Systems Spread on Campuses

The tragic shooting at Virginia Tech last year has sparked interest at educational institutions in mass notification software systems that send out e-mails, text and pre-recorded phone alerts.

Until the shooting, where more than 30 lost their lives, companies such as 3n, of Glendale, Calif., had all but given up on the education market.

University administrations were slow to make decisions and lacked a desire to invest in the systems, said James Keene, executive vice president at 3n.

Alison Johnson, manager of public safety sales at Twenty First Century Communications based in Columbus, Ohio, agreed. “We didn’t dabble in that market very much. Now, we’re seeing a lot more need and interest,” she said.

Inquiries from educational institutions have increased 300 percent since the Virginia Tech shooting, Keene said. Virginia Tech chose 3n to upgrade its mass notification system last summer.

Besides educational institutions, municipalities, companies and the federal government are relying on the growing mass notification systems market.

“Without rapid, coordinated, communications, even the best disaster management plan is virtually ineffective,” 3n literature said.

Twenty First Century Communications used its system during the southern California wildfires last October to send evacuation notices to about 395,000 listed and unlisted numbers in San Diego County.

Secret Service Hopes Use of New Escape Mask Proliferates

The U.S. Secret Service is developing a pocket-sized escape hood designed to protect agents and the president from chemical and biological attacks.

Agents have a good deal of equipment in their vehicles and pre-positioned in rooms where the president and others they are protecting visit. However, there was concern about how to provide protection from chemical or biological attack during those fleeting moments between the motorcade and the building, said Tony Chapa, deputy assistant director of the service’s office of protective research.

Agents on security detail only wear suits, and carry a weapon and radio. They don’t have room to carry a traditional gas mask under the suit, he said at the conference.

The Secret Service’s technical security division sent out a broad agency announcement through the Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate seeking ideas from vendors for an escape hood “they could conceal in their suit, and pull out and provide them the opportunity to go from [a contaminated area] back to a secure area.”

Unlike traditional gas masks, escape hoods are intended for short-term use — about 10 to 15 minutes.

The directorate settled on a design proposed by a British company, Avon Protection Systems Inc., which had provided similar systems to help London police escape the city’s subway system in the event of an attack.

The service now has a prototype that fits inside a suit coat pocket. It is 4.25 inches wide and 8.5 inches long. Thin carbon filters scrub the air of smoke, gas or biological agents.

The hard part was a nose cup that would provide adequate protection and fold inside the pouch.
“It’s very easy to design a nose cup that is hard and gives you protection, but to have one that collapses was a big invention,” Chapa said.

The escape hoods will undergo field tests this spring, with the hope that the technology spreads.
“This could be used by law enforcement and first responders all over the nation,” Chapa said.

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