Inside the Department of Homeland Security's Tech Garage

Homeland security science and technology chief outlines priorities and current projects: interoperability, counter IEDs, cyber security, container scanners, personnel locators, biometric identification, vehicle disabling technology and a breathing apparatus.

by / November 3, 2008

Photo: Jay Cohen, Department of Homeland Security, Under Secretary for Science and Technology. (Credit: DHS)

Just do it. Nike's slogan nicely captures the entrepreneurial approach to technology development that drives the Science and Technology Directorate at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. To hear Jay Cohen, undersecretary of the S & T Directorate, talk about technology development for the defense of the homeland, one would be forgiven for mistaking him for a chief executive of a Silicon Valley start-up. He's brimming with energy and optimism about the prospect of public-private partnerships developing technology to secure the homeland.

Cohen oversees an agency with an $830 million dollar budget, nearly half of which is devoted to the directorate's high-priority technology needs. About 10 percent of the budget goes into further innovation in homeland security technology and about 1 percent of the budget goes into a rapid-development fund. Projects in that fund must cost less than $1 million and have a time-to-market of less than a year.

In order to reduce redundancy, the DHS cannot recreate any of the programs of the Centers for Disease Control or others. "We provide technology solutions from around the world," Cohen said.

S and T has around 250 projects under development at any one time for completion in between one to five years, and each of those projects is reviewed against performance metrics every six months. Of these projects, Cohen expects 50 percent of them will fail. That's all a part of the directorate's entrepreneurial culture. "S and T is 1000 miles wide and one millimeter deep, " he explained.

The way the directorate operates is that a Department of Homeland Security component agency, such as Customs and Border Patrol, awards a contract for a technology solution and then the S and T Directorate works to make it better. Once a DHS component has acquired the technology, state and local first responders can purchase the technology from DHS.

Current Priorities

Interoperability -- Interoperability is a governance issue, Cohen said. He noted that before a bomb technician from a local police department can jam a bomb, he has to receive a permit from the Federal Communications Commission. The U.S. would not fight a war like the local chain of command is, he noted.

Counter IEDs -- Cohen, quoting Thomas Friedman, told attendees at the conference "IEDs are coming to a theater near you." Improvised explosive devices are not weapons of mass destruction, but weapons of mass influence, he said.

Cyber Security - Cyber security is a very difficult challenge, Cohen said. He acknowledged the air force and Congress for their cyber efforts and increasing the security of .gov domains. He noted the importance of the security of the cyber component of the nation's critical infrastructure and that the federal government is planning to spend $17 billion on cyber security in the next five years.

Another major project the directorate is funding is a 3-D personnel location technology-that is, not only pinpointing first responders as to their latitude and longitude coordinates, but their location within a building as well. Additionally, the directorate is funding improvements in biometric identification, an improved vehicle stopping technology and a breathing apparatus. The directorate is also working on is a container scanner that can detect nuclear, biological, chemical and conventional explosive compounds as well as a stowaway passenger in 45 seconds.

Homeland Security vs. Department of Defense

The DHS is not "DoD light", Cohen noted. The two agencies measure results very differently. DoD measures its results in terms of targets killed, captured or destroyed "over there" without forensics, Cohen noted. At DHS on the other hand, being fundamentally a Department of Justice-based agency forensics are everything. Since they must adhere to the Constitution, DHS investigators need

that evidence to investigate, try and bring terrorists to justice.

DHS deals with what Cohen called the six B's: Bombs, borders, bugs, businesses, bodies and buildings. It is an all-hazards agency.

He recalled the August 2006 plot in Britain to blow up a commercial airliner using liquid explosives which prompted the Transportation Security Administration to adopt the 3-1-1 rule which prohibits carrying containers of liquid greater than three ounces on board a plane in a single quart-sized bag. He said the S and T Directorate was working on a solution that would eliminate the need for travelers to take laptops and cosmetics out of their carry-on luggage.

13th Integrated Product Team (IPT)

Cohen wants to establish a 13th IPT to spur further innovation and get feedback from state and local first responders on their needs and requirements for future technological capabilities. Cohen said there should be tighter collaboration between the science and technology grants officer, testing and evaluation staff and the first responder community. He even suggested giving the experimental technology to fire and police departments throughout the country so they can do testing and evaluation and improve the feedback the S and T directorate gets when evaluating technology to invest in. He'd be happy to hear the thoughts of first responders and members of the emergency management community about the idea.

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