Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sophisticated Sensors

An article in the Washington Post describes the controversy in NYC over the deployment of sensors that are supposed to provide early warning of a biological attack. It seems that the initial sampling equipment, which has cost about $400 million so far, leaves a lot to be desired:

The older samplers catch airborne particles in filters that are manually collected once a day and taken to a laboratory, requiring up to 30 hours to detect a pathogen. They may not preserve live organisms that scientists use to select treatment options. And the process is cost- and labor-intensive, leading to false alarms, quality-control problems and limits on the system's size, despite an $85 million-a-year national budget.
The new sensors aren't exactly ideal, either:
Runge said technical challenges remain in ensuring new sensors' accuracy and reducing their size and operating costs. He said DHS plans to begin pilot tests this year of alternative sensors -- which it hopes will be better than those made by Lawrence Livermore -- and to oversee a competition between two private bidders, IQuum and Microfluidic Systems, beginning in 2009. As a result, Runge said, decisions on what and how big a system to deploy will be left to the next administration.
That's probably just as well. It sounds as though the BioWatch system isn't in much better shape than it was back in 2005, when the EPA's inspector general announced that the EPA hadn't "ensured the reliability, timeliness and efficiency of air sampling that Bush directed be part of a $129 million early warning system."
EPA sometimes placed sensors too far apart, failed to make sure they were all in secure locations and didn't always factor in topography and seasonal wind pattern changes in some cities.
As I argued a couple of years ago, "agent detection is an interesting but comparatively minor field; it doesn't work well, but even if it did, mere data aren't all that useful unless you have a staffed and funded and organized public health system." Thanks to BushCo's technofetishist belief that every problem can be solved by paying private contractors to build some high-priced gizmo, this is precisely what we don't have:
How fast do public health departments nationwide respond to a medical practitioner's alert that a patient has a serious infectious disease like smallpox or meningitis? Or respond to a doctor who thinks he's seeing the first symptoms of anthrax from bioterrorism?....The new study found an average response time of 63 minutes, and some agencies took nearly 17 hours to call back. The report ranked one-third of the health departments as “poor” because one or more of their reply calls came more than four hours after the alert.
In her recent testimony before Congress, biosecurity expert Tara O'Toole raised a fascinating question:
Environmental sensor technologies are now being marketed to individual companies for installation in privately owned buildings. Will DHS develop commercial standards or regulations to ensure that such systems are reliable and maintained properly? Should public health agencies be required to assess every warning signal (“hit”) registered by privately owned sensors? Should public health agencies be reimbursed for such assessments?
With that in mind, read this:
The NYPD is moving to license private biological, chemical and radiological detectors because of "concerns" raised by the feds, a police official testified yesterday....

Falkenrath said the private deployment of sophisticated sensors has increased since 9/11. Information about where the sophisticated sensors are and how reliable they are is sketchy.
Opponents of licensing claim that "the measure could stifle the independent collection of environmental data," which is a valid point, especially given the official suppression of air-quality data after 9/11. But again, there's a definite limit to what data collection can do for us, given that Ayn Rand has expressly forbidden us to have a fully funded, equipped, integrated, and accessible public healthcare system.

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