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First responders never know what types of dangers they will encounter when they receive an emergency call. With today’s threat of terrorism, law enforcement responders rely more than ever on K-9 assistance to detect and locate hidden bombs.
As responses to security threats evolve, terrorists use different materials to develop homemade explosives (HME). Many of the chemicals procured and used in explosive devices are highly sensitive and dangerously unstable. This makes it difficult for law enforcement to train bomb sniffing K-9s on detecting these compounds; the Center of Excellence (COE) for Awareness and Localization of Explosives-Related Threats (ALERT) fills this gap.
ALERT is one of 10 university-based COEs managed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate Office of University Programs. Northeastern University leads the center and works with other strategic partners across the country to conduct transformational research, technology and educational development for effective response when countering explosive-related threats.
ALERT Director Michael Silevitch explained its mission scope, “The primary goal has been to develop technologies and algorithms to enhance the ability to eliminate illicit explosives; develop actionable trace explosives detection along with ultra-reliable screening of luggage and passengers to detect explosive threats, including detecting threats at a distance up to 10-50 meters; facilitate the transition of technology to the field; and educate the next generation of DHS professionals including scientists, engineers, and first responders.”
Travis Kisner with Detectachem, a partner company that developed components for the K-9 training aids, explained some of the challenges facing first responders during K-9 training exercises. “HMEs, such as triacetone triperoxide (TATP) and hexamethylene triperoxide diamine, which have recently been used in terrorist attacks, are inherently dangerous and hazardous to transport and handle. The dogs need to be trained on these types of explosives, however. We are able to offer first responders the ability to safely train police dogs on HMEs without the danger and risk to handling or transporting them in a dangerous bulk state.”
Prof. Jimmie Oxley, who leads the K-9 research, added, “In recent years the capture of terrorist facilities has resulted in the routine confiscation of HMEs by counterterrorism units. Accidents have been reported that emphasize the importance of developing safe methods for the detection, identification, and destruction of HMEs.”
She explained the design of the project, “To detect, destroy, handle safely, or prevent the synthesis of HMEs, a complete understanding involves answering the following questions: How are the HMEs formed, and what accelerates or retards formation? How do HMEs decompose, and what accelerates or retards decomposition? How do the HMEs crystallize? What are the vapor pressure and headspace signature of HMEs? Is it sensitive to accidental ignition and purposeful ignition? What is its performance when under shock and fire conditions?”
Oxley and her team created a method of polymer encapsulation that provides safe trace explosives sources. Their research results show polycarbonate microspheres containing only a low percentage of TATP last for years yet produce pure TATP vapor when heated. Although the vapors contain small amounts of actual explosives material, these 'Trace Explosives Aids for Scent' are called pseudo-explosives because they have no potential to explode.
Currently, 29 groups have tested prototypes of ALERT’s training aids, including the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police, Massachusetts State Police, Toronto Police and industry collaborators such as K-9 Search On Site and FLIR Systems, Inc.
The ALERT COE is always interested in exploring new partnerships with both first responders and the industrial sector. ALERT has designated five levels of membership through which businesses can secure proposal opportunities, internships/fellowships with COE students and research contracts.
For more information on ALERT or other COEs, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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