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PNNL lending a hand — and technology — to first responders

Published in the Tri-City Herald July 23, 2017, authored by Lab Director Steven Ashby

PNNL lending a hand — and technology — to first responders

July 23, 2017
Source: Tri-City Herald, reposted with permission from Tri-City Herald

  • Melanie Godinez

    PNNL's Melanie Godinez and her colleagues partner with first responders to support a regional capability to deter the potential for illicit movement of radioactive materials within, and potentially through, the Puget Sound maritime environment with the intent to do harm. PNNL not only manages the purchase, inventory and distribution of the radiation detection equipment for law enforcement and fire agencies in the Seattle area, it also coordinates training and dock-side drills, like the one shown here.

  • Ann Lesperance

    PNNL's Ann Lesperance demonstrates an iterative process that PNNL developed that allows technology developers to gain early feedback from first responders such as this event center employee. This process will drive product features to better meet the needs and requirements in the field—and to ultimately optimize their product for future success in the market. PNNL operates the Northwest Regional Technology Center—a virtual resource center that helps enable homeland security solutions for emergency responder communities that reaches more than 1,000 professionals nationwide.


When disaster strikes, first responders rush in to provide assistance. In addition to their courage and training, they depend on a panoply of technologies to do their jobs.

The Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory partners with emergency management and public safety professionals to define, develop, test and deploy these technologies to improve response and recovery. We also apply our scientific capabilities to assess emergencies as they unfold.

PNNL manages the Department of Homeland Security's Responder Technology Alliance with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, where our researchers work shoulder to shoulder with the responder community to evaluate how emerging technologies can help keep them safe and do their jobs better. For example, PNNL is developing wearable sensors and portable communications devices and helping put these solutions into action.

In one project, DHS, PNNL and ADI Technologies developed a prototype wearable, hands-free communications system that enables multiple on-scene agencies and various incident command and control personnel to collaborate. Now available commercially, the wireless voice- and motion-operated device looks like a streamlined headset. It features a noise-filtering digital speaker and microphone, streaming video and translation capability — at a quarter of the cost of today's conventional radios.

PNNL researchers also are developing a collaboration space for the emergency management community and working with regional partners to evaluate its merits. This space allows users to share and store critical information such as video, voice, pictures, instant messages and documents on shared whiteboards and desktops in real time — and tailored to facilitate collaborative decision-making.

Another effort illustrates how PNNL bridges the gap between technology developers and first responders. A PNNL-developed electronic guide helps first responders make informed choices about the equipment and supplies available to rapidly collect, screen and identify biological threats in the field. The guide has been downloaded more than 14,000 times and is available as an app for iPhones and iPads. PNNL scientists also conducted more than 5,000 independent tests on 36 different technologies that enable responders to quickly screen suspicious powders that may contain anthrax or ricin.

PNNL has developed technology to assist in recovery following an incident, such as a biological or chemical contamination. Our award-winning micro aerosol disinfecting system uses an electrochemically activated salt spray to kill bacteria, viruses and molds in enclosed spaces such as hospital rooms, vehicles and machinery. Not only is the system 99.9999 percent effective in killing a range of pathogens ranging from Staph to Ebola, it is easier to apply than other methods.

In addition to partnering on technology solutions, PNNL draws upon its science and engineering expertise to help respond to emergencies around the world. In 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, PNNL provided early estimates of radiation releases and potential exposures, assisted with stabilizing the site of the nuclear reactors and putting the plant into safe mode, and is now helping develop clean-up plans.

PNNL experts were also consulted following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where they used modeling to estimate the amount of oil that was leaking. And this past spring, several of our staff received a Secretary of Energy commendation for their efforts in the global response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Western Africa.

Finally, PNNL researchers are helping to improve preparedness and response for future disasters. For example, we are applying our world-leading data analytics capabilities to support development of predictive flood analytics for DHS. In collaboration with the National Weather Service, PNNL developed a prototype tool to better forecast how high rivers will rise and pinpoint the extent of potential flooding.

From technology development to deployment, PNNL is bringing innovation to first response and incident recovery. By partnering with those who protect us, we are helping to make them even more effective and keeping them safe.

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. His other columns and opinion pieces are available here.

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