SFO's new layer of bio-terrorism defense

March 28, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
With many people making plans for their summer vacation, ABC7 NEWS wanted to show you a new layer of defense against bio-terrorism recently put in place at San Francisco International Airport.

It's known as BIRC, which stands for Biowatch Indoor Reachback Center. BIRC is not a system that prevents a biochemical attack; it's a system that can save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in the aftermath of an attack.

If the day comes when a biological agent, such as anthrax, is detected by air monitors at San Francisco International Airport, the call will go out to the Department of Homeland Security's BIRC team at Sandia Labs in Livermore.

"We want to influence that first response, so we need to get actionable information in their hands before they make that response," said Nate Gleason, BIRC team leader.

The Biowatch Indoor Reachback Center, or BIRC team, has been in place for just a matter of months, but members have been planning for biological agent releases at the nation's transportation hubs since before 9/11.

Nate Gleason leads the team, which is:

"Generating libraries of tens or hundreds of thousands of potential attack scenarios, and then what we do is we design a protection architecture that's robust and best able to protect that facility from any conceivable attack scenario," said Nate Gleason.

In a rehearsal for an attack at SFO initial information from the scene leads to a model, which shows the approximate size and likely location of the release. Next, they notify the FBI, and airport, city and state officials. How widespread is the contamination and how much has moved outdoors? Team member Donna Edwards measured air flow at SFO in 2000.

"It gave us an understanding of what an attack would look like and how it might play out in a real working facility," said Donna Edwards, systems analyst.

The model of the airport had to be put together manually, blueprint by blueprint. Team member Dave Franco knows how time intensive it can be to do all that.

"So we get documents from a facility from 50 years ago all the way through to the present. And we have take those documents, sort through them, sift, find out what's relevant and what's not relevant and then generate the model," said Dave Franco, chemical engineer.

As more precise information comes in from the scene, the BIRC team gets a more precise picture of what's going on at the airport by using Sandia's Building Restoration Operations Optimization Model, or BROOM.

"What the BROOM tool does is it takes the sampling information that they give back to us, organizes it and interprets it, to generate high resolution contamination maps of that facility," said Nate Gleason.

The information could help identify, for example, which gates were contaminated, and people who used those gates could be notified. And areas not impacted can stay open.

"What we saw in cases back east, where the facilities were closed three months, four months, sometimes years - that could be devastating, not just to the airport, but the entire local economy as far as commerce and cargo and all these other things that come through this airport," said Mike McCarron, SFO spokesman.

It's another layer in America's security system and it's constantly being improved, with the hope it never has to be used.

BIRC's next project is to develop an electronic playbook that would give participating facilities even more useful information, such as advice on how SFO for example might integrate BIRC information into their own response plans.


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