New LINCs to Safety

Seattle demonstrates a local version of a federal system to map the spread of hazardous materials.

by / August 8, 2002
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.

The group that developed CAMEO is based in Seattle, and officials from NARAC have been talking with them about cooperating on the LINC pilot. "We're starting a dialog with them on how we can make best use of both systems, since the CAMEO system is used by a lot of HAZMAT teams," Nasstrom said. CAMEO's chemical database would complement NARAC's other strengths.

NARAC's system already includes links to meteorological stations across the United States, as well as local map data for the entire country. But to configure it for use by cities and counties, the system needs to integrate more detailed geographic data from local agencies.

"In the case of Seattle, we're working with their GIS group to import all the city map data they routinely use for emergency management," Nasstrom said.

Additionally, NARAC is incorporating feeds from more Seattle-area meteorological stations, as well as local databases that pinpoint where chemicals are stored in certain buildings.

NARAC is also working with firefighters in Seattle's HAZMAT unit to make sure the software interface is easy to use, Croll said.

Tests Planned

Once the partners configure a version of the system for Seattle, they will run drills to show how NARAC responds when users enter data on hypothetical emergencies, Mosely-Rovi said.

The central system at NARAC can provide automated feedback. If need be, live operators can also assist local responders. Seattle will test both scenarios and might also simulate an off-hours emergency, Croll said. In the latter case, NARAC's operators would be paged and asked to rush to the lab to help emergency workers in the field.

The LINC program has received $750,000 from CBNSP. None of this funding goes directly to Seattle. The city receives in-kind support, such as training for its emergency workers. It is also supporting some of the program costs on its own, including hosting meetings and sending its emergency workers to Livermore for additional training.

PTI and LLNL are applying for further funds; they would like to extend the program for three years and bring it to other cities, Mosely-Rovi said. The partners hope to conduct some pilots in cities that are smaller than Seattle and less technically advanced.

"The next city will probably be medium-sized, and then we'll do a small city. The learning curve will be different in each one," she said.

In every case, the prospect for local agencies and their partners is exciting, Mosely-Rovi said. "I'm absolutely convinced that we're onto something really big here and it's going to save lives."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs