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Location: Middleburg (Jacksonville), Florida, United States

Published in Trains magazine, Railfan & Railroad, Passenger Train Journal

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

‘Sniffers’ to be upgraded in New York

Both Amtrak and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City plan to upgrade their chemical sniffing devices inside their stations – Amtrak at Penn Station, and MTA at Grand Central Terminal.

When security officials first installed a system of sensors at Grand Central to sniff the air for signs of a poison gas or chemical attack, they had to learn to tell the difference between a janitor and a terrorist.

Technicians found that a person walking by with a mop and bucket full of floor cleaner could trigger the chemical sensors, The New York Times reported today.

Now, two years after the system was rushed into place in time for the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2004, officials at the MTA are satisfied that they can use the equipment to distinguish between a real threat and Mr. Clean, and they are spending $3.9 million to further upgrade the network of sensors at GCT and install a similar system in Pennsylvania Station.

Amtrak said that in addition to installing the sensors in Penn Station, it would do so in Union Station in Chicago, 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and Union Station in Washington. The installation at the four sites will take place over the next two years at a cost of $5.5 million, said an Amtrak spokeswoman, Karina Romero.

The system, known as “Protect” includes sensors, also called sniffers, that continually suck in air and analyze it for chemical toxins and gases, said Jamie Edgar, a vice-president of Smith’s Detection-LiveWave, the company that manufactures and installs the equipment.

The acronym, Protect, stands for Program for Response Options and Technology Enhancements for Chemical/Biological Terrorism.

The sensors, housed in nondescript metal boxes around Grand Central Terminal, are combined with concealed video cameras that let technicians or law enforcement personnel observe the area around the monitors for signs of an attack – or for that telltale bucket and mop. Data is analyzed with software that can predict the direction of a chemical plume, to aid officials in coordinating an evacuation.

The system was developed by Argonne National Laboratory after the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995. It was first tested in the subway system in Washington in December 2001, and by 2003 it had been installed in several stations there. In the summer of 2004 it was installed by the Department of Homeland Security in Grand Central Terminal and in a transit facility in Boston, where the Democratic National Convention was held.

At Grand Central, the system is one of several safeguards, including radiation monitors and sensors that detect biological or germ warfare agents.

The biological detectors are checked manually once a day. The chemical sensors, however, are computerized and constantly feed data into a monitoring system that can alert the terminal’s security staff when a problem occurs.

Anthony J. Policastro, deputy director of the Infrastructure Assurance Center at Argonne National Laboratory, said that the system at Grand Central Terminal was initially meant to be temporary and that it was not until after the Republican convention that Homeland Security officials decided to leave it in place.

That required a good deal of additional work, including improving wired and wireless connections and adapting the system to the terminal’s unique conditions, he said.

Technicians discovered that Grand Central was both a dirtier and, in its way, a cleaner place than the Washington subway. People who worked on the system said that brake dust from trains fouled filters, which had to be changed more frequently. Fumes from diesel engines caused other problems – and then there were those janitors. The technicians encountered an array of cleaning products in the terminal, and adjustments were needed in the sensors and software.

“It’s a more difficult environment in that terminal, in terms of dust, dirt and chemicals,” Policastro said.

Last week, the authority’s board agreed to spend $611,000 to upgrade the system at Grand Central and $1.6 million to install the new system at Penn Station. A three-year maintenance contract covering both facilities, with an option for two additional years, will cost an extra $1.7 million.

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