Two years ago, Timothy Croll felt, as he describes it, "a blinding light" erupt in his mind. Touring Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) with other local government officials, he saw a powerful technology for mapping the spread of dangerous materials in the atmosphere. If a terrorist attack or an accident released toxins back home in Seattle, he realized, this suite of tools could save lives.

Croll is community services director at Seattle Public Utilities, the agency that runs Seattle's water, sewer, drainage and solid waste services. As a member of the Environment Task Force of Public Technology Inc., he was visiting LLNL to learn about a broad spectrum of technologies available there. Croll and his colleagues were particularly impressed with the lab's National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC). The technologies there help emergency responders determine where a hazardous plume will spread given the local terrain and current weather conditions, and how best to protect people in that area.

Croll had used modeling software to design responses to accidental chlorine leaks from the city's water treatment facilities, but he'd never seen capabilities like NARAC's. "I felt like I had stepped from a tricycle to a Ferrari," he said.

Soon, safety officials in Seattle and other cities will get to take a spin in that Ferrari. Today, NARAC helps federal facilities and emergency workers plan responses to radiological, chemical and biological releases. A new demonstration program, called Local Integration of the NARAC with Cities, or LINC, will put NARAC's power into the hands of local agencies.

Seattle is the first pilot site for LINC, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Chemical and Biological National Security Program (CBNSP), working in partnership with PTI and LLNL. Officially, LINC focuses on chemical or biological materials released in terrorist attacks, but NARAC's system could help local agencies respond to accidents as well, Croll pointed out.

Two-Part System

The NARAC system has two components: a local software package called iClient (Internet Client), and a central system at the lab in Livermore, Calif. Local responders use iClient to enter basic information about an incident, such as the material involved and the location. The software immediately maps the plume and returns advice on how to respond.

"They have the capability to run a quick, simple model of what the downwind hazard areas might be," explained John Nasstrom, a deputy program administrator at LLNL. "At the same time, they can reach back to our more powerful computers in Livermore. They can do more detailed, three-dimensional atmospheric transport, including terrain effects. Those are returned in about five to 10 minutes."

NARAC's system does more than predict how a plume will spread. "It also talks about the impact," Croll explained. "There would be a map that would say that in these neighborhoods, with these bounding streets, the odds are you're dead already. If you're in these other bounding streets, stay inside and shut your windows."

With real-time meteorological data in the mix, city officials who planned to evacuate people to another part of the city would know for sure that the plume wasn't heading toward that area.

"Within about five minutes, a local responder has information about whether you ought to shelter in place, whether you ought to start evacuation processes," said Ronda Mosely-Rovi, director of environmental programs at PTI.

CAMEO's Role

Like responders in many other cities, the HAZMAT team at the Seattle Fire Department currently uses software called CAMEO, which stands for Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations, to help it respond to chemical accidents. Developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, CAMEO includes an extensive database of chemicals and their properties, along with tools for modeling and mapping their dispersion.

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer