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Airborne Los Alamos instruments test for toxins from fires

DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory : 14 May, 2007  (Technical Article)
A unique hazard-detecting plane, supported by scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory and operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was on duty to warn first responders and residents with information about potential chemical hazards during a recent Houston oil refinery disaster. The specially equipped aircraft was able to determine whether any chemical vapor hazards were present so that those near the site could be evacuated safely.
The British Petroleum-Amoco Refinery, located in Texas City, Texas, near Houston, suffered a catastrophic explosion March 23, killing 15 and injuring more than 100 people. Called to duty in the immediate aftermath, the plane, a twin-engine Aerocommander 680 aircraft based in the Dallas, Texas vicinity, is equipped with a multi-spectral infrared mapping system and a Fourier Transform Infrared spectrometer package called ASPECT. This airborne sensor is the only 'stand-off infrared' detection tool devoted to emergency domestic response applications.

As backup for the staff on board the airplane, Los Alamos scientists provided 'reachback' support, a phone bridge with the EPA project managers and the aircraft operators to discuss the results and implications of data collected from the aircraft at the site. Los Alamos supports the development of unique computer pattern recognition tools used for chemical and radiological data analysis on the aircraft.

Said scientist Mark Thomas of EPA's Region 7, 'With the data analysis software on the aircraft, coupled with the technical reachback capabilities currently provided to the nation by Los Alamos National Laboratory, the EPA can more effectively give immediate information to first responders at the site enhancing protection of the public from chemical hazards.'

Gary Brown, Director of Iowa Woodbury County Emergency Response Services said, 'The data and information generated by ASPECT provides first responders with a critical link that emergency responses do not currently have; namely, real-time wide-area chemical detection information.'

The ASPECT plane and equipment have been called into service nationwide more than 40 times, having flown during the space shuttle debris search, the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, California fires, and during chemical plant and rail-car accidents in a number of states. The technology provides first responders with critical information regarding the size, shape, composition and concentration of gas clouds.

The Laboratory's Center for Homeland Security is supporting the project and has hopes to enhance the ability to provide reach-back safety protections for first responders and the public.

'ASPECT is well suited for response to incidents during the initial phases of an event, prior to determination of the cause-be it an accident or of malicious origin,' said Gary Resnick, head of chemical and biological threat reduction at Los Alamos CHS.

The ASPECT plane and its gear basically provide a remote airborne detection system that provides information about exact locations of contamination and aid in avoidance of those hazardous areas for first responders. This system can be ready for rapid response with the ability to examine extremely wide areas as the plane scans an area in ever-widening patterns over a suspected danger site. The airborne equipment can identify, map and provide GPS locations of the extent of a chemical hazard cloud, helping first responders and residents stay out of harm's way, especially when the hazards are invisible.

The ASPECT system uses three sensors mounted aboard an aircraft operated by an EPA first-responder crew. The first sensor, the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer, detects and locates chemical vapors. It can see through smoke and dust to get a measurement of the location and concentration of the vapor plume. A second sensor, a high-resolution Infrared Line Scanner, records an image of the ground below, as well as plume information.

The system then uses GPS mapping data and digital images of the site to create exact maps and digital data overlays of chemical plumes and low area locations where toxin-laden air may accumulate.
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