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  1. Science and Technology Directorate
  2. News Room
  3. Snapshot: S&T Labs, Responders Assess Explosives Detectors

Snapshot: S&T Labs Partner with Responders to Assess Handheld Explosives Trace Detectors

Release Date: July 18, 2019

A law enforcement officer uses a handheld ETD to collect samples during the vehicle screening scenario. Individuals who carry explosives or have been involved in bomb making are likely to be contaminated with trace explosives, microscopic particles invisible to the naked eye. Without the right equipment, detecting trace explosives can be challenging for responders and security personnel. Handheld explosives trace detectors (ETDs) can be used to complement bomb-sniffing canines, which are still the gold standard in trace explosives detection. These detectors can be used to find trace explosives on individuals, hopefully preventing a dangerous incident.

Handheld ETDs are small, lightweight, and usually do not require assembly, making them an ideal choice for responders who need to quickly investigate a suspicious package or screen individuals in areas lacking permanent fixtures or sufficient power. In order to provide information to the responder community, two federal laboratories under the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T)—the National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL)—primarily a testing and evaluation laboratory for first responders—and the Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL)—known for its experience in explosives detection—collaborated to use their respective expertise to assess handheld ETDs.

“First responders are looking for a handheld ETD that is ergonomic, has an expansive explosives library, can be used with one hand, and is reliable in the field,” said NUSTL Test Director, Karin Decker. “NUSTL partnered with TSL to put together a two-phase project in order to adequately assess the usability of each instrument as well as the accuracy of the detectors. The interaction among the first responders and NUSTL and TSL staff led to a great deal of knowledge sharing and ideas for future projects.”

In the first phase of testing, held at TSL, technical laboratory verification tests identified some deficiencies in current detectors, leading to discussions between vendors and users about improving detection capabilities. NUSTL planned and executed the second phase as a comparative, impartial, operationally oriented assessment of five different handheld ETDs via their System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders (SAVER) Program, with the assistance of TSL and first responders.

TSL’s expert staff transported the trace explosives samples used during the testing. “NUSTL, TSL, and the first responder community worked together to apply independent system assessment results to acquisition decision-making, and the participating vendors were impressed by the thoroughness of the operational assessment scenarios and feedback. I think system vendors will be more likely to work with TSL and NUSTL to ensure their performance claims are supported by S&T testing,” said TSL Explosives Trace Detection Project Lead, Chondrea Richard.

NUSTL planned the SAVER assessment based on requirements identified by a focus group, the results of which are available in the Handheld Explosives Trace Detectors Focus Group Report.

During the assessment, five responders were trained by vendors on each detector prior to use in two operational scenarios involving indoor and outdoor screening to detect trace explosives.

First responders receive training on the calibration of the handheld ETDs. The indoor screening scenario allowed responders to sample various surface materials and electronic devices, such as cell phones, shoulder microphones, and cameras. The outdoor scenario allowed responders to sample the interior and exterior of a vehicle that had transported explosives.

Throughout the SAVER assessment, NUSTL collected feedback, based on criteria identified by the focus group. The feedback will be analyzed by NUSTL and compiled—along with the results of the first phase of testing— into an assessment report, which will be made publically available in the SAVER Document Library.

A detective from the New York City Police Department’s Transit Bureau thought the assessment brought valuable insights into the varying capabilities of different handheld ETDs currently available on the market. The assessment also provided a chance for participants to discuss ConOps across fire service and law enforcement disciplines.

“This collaboration between TSL and NUSTL to support our first responders was successful because it brought together the special expertise of both S&T labs: NUSTL’s proven operational assessment expertise and TSL’s recognized ability to evaluate vendor performance claims. The combined expertise of NUSTL and TSL provided valuable insight to the first responders about the real functionality and detection capabilities of a number of handheld trace explosive detection equipment,” said TSL Principal Investigator, Claudia Dengler.

For more information on NUSTL, visit www.dhs.gov/science-and-technology/national-urban-security-technology-laboratory. To learn more about NUSTL’s SAVER Program or to view additional reports on handheld ETDs, visit www.dhs.gov/science-and-technology/SAVER. Submit any questions for NUSTL to NUSTL@hq.dhs.gov.

For more information on TSL, visit www.dhs.gov/science-and-technology/transportation-security-laboratory. Submit any questions for TSL to TSLinfo@hq.dhs.gov.

1. A law enforcement officer uses a handheld ETD to collect samples during the vehicle screening scenario.
2. First responders receive training on the calibration of the handheld ETDs.

Last Updated: 05/07/2020
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