DHS announces plans to decrease detection time

The Department of Homeland Security has announced plans to cut its detection time for a biological attack from 36 hours down to four hours.

As part of the time cutting goal, DHS chief of science and technology Tara O'Toole told DefenseNews.com, more sophisticated sensors to collect and analyze air samples also need to be developed.

Currently, the DHS' BioWatch program has installed biological weapon sensors in over 30 U.S. cities that continuously monitor the air for biological threats.

The DHS goal, O'Toole told DefenseNews.com, is "rapid detection of and response to certain biological aerosols."

The sensors currently in use utilize filters that collect organisms from the air. The filters are collected daily and delivered to labs for analysis. This process, which can take as long as 36 hours, falls short of the stated "rapid" goal for detection and allows too much time for exposure to anthrax, small pox, plague and other weaponized diseases.

New sensors, dubbed "Generation 3," that have been referred to a lab-in-a-box, are currently being tested by the DHS, though some experts have said that the stated rapid goal for the new sensors will be tough to achieve.

The new sensors, O'Toole said, must be able to "automatically collect outdoor air samples, perform molecular analysis of the samples and report the results electronically to provide near-real-time reporting."

The estimated cost for the sensors is $80,000 apiece, meaning that testing must be done to prove the new sensors work before they can be rolled out nationwide.