Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Sensor That Cried Wolf

by Tom Bozzo

At the end of the brief Post story on a scare at the Russell Senate Office Building, evacuated yesterday due to an alarm from a nerve agent sensor:
Capitol Police said in 2004 that its hazmat team responded to three to 10 false alarms daily on Capitol Hill involving hazardous material scares.
That's a lot of false alarms. The preceding paragraph:
Authorities were treating the threat with urgency, but they had not ruled out the possibility that a cleaning agent could have triggered the alarm.
Cleaning agent, nerve agent... they're both agents!

In my Secret Factfinding Mission, I had (incidentally) observed a piece of biohazard detection gear, and it was made clear that it would be a Big Deal if it were to go off — which IIRC has happened (false positives) a few orders of magnitude less often than the jumpy Capitol Hill kit.

Update: Steven Stehling of Standards and Grudges provides his experience from his time on active duty in the comments. Snark aside, I agree with his conclusion that the chemical and biological detection systems are better than nothing. From seeing reactions to non-drill fire alarms in office buildings, what seems like an overreaction may be what is necessary to get people to pay attention to the alarms at all. The catch would be if incessant false alarms convince someone to pull the plug on a perceived nuisance.

Anyway, I am in D.C. now, was slogging through Capitol Hill traffic with clients not long before the alarm. As "security theater" goes, the hazmat alarms aren't remotely in the same league as such efforts as banning the public the Department of Energy's Forrestal cafeteria.
The chemical and biological detection systems are far from perfect yet. When I was on active duty I used to play around with a machine they called RASCAL over in the NBC shop down the hall from my area. All sorts of things will set it off. Also the detection tapes and papers can give false positives when exposed to any number of things, like petroleum based products.

The technology isn't great, but it's better than nothing.
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