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ARA Supports FiRST Responders with Bomb Blast and HAZMAT App

April 2013

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, ARA’s Carl Jerrett illuminates how the FiRST app’s capabilities and potential can enhance first-responders’ abilities to respond to an emergency situation.

When was your FiRST app developed?

The First Responder Support Tools (FiRST) was developed with funding support from Department of Homeland Security’s S&T/Responder Technologies office. It was initially released in November 2011. Today there are versions for iOS, Android and Windows PC.

Additional funding in 2013 will result in upgraded apps that can share incident data among organizations, provide information on radiological and nuclear events, and provide ESRI Flex widgets that allow for FiRST capabilities within the ESRI Flex Viewer environment. This work should be released late this summer. ARA plans to release a redesigned iPad version of FiRST in May.

Was your app developed for any specific agency and if so, which?

The app was built in response to capabilities requested by the DHS Office for Bombing Prevention (OBP). OBP wanted a simple app to assist first-responders across the county during the initial stages of response to suspected IEDs. ARA combined the bomb response capabilities with an ARA developed hazmat response capability to field FiRST.

Do you know if this app is being used in Boston? How is it being used?

To date we have nearly 5,000 (4,860) of the apps fielded. We are aware of responders in the Boston area having the app, but we do not know the extent to which they have used the application.

What is the goal of your FIRST app?

The goal of the FiRST app is to be an application that is easily fielded, intuitive enough to require no formal training, and assists responders, emergency managers and security specialists with planning and responding to suspected CBRNE threats. The costs of the application have remained very low to not be a barrier in fielding the application.

What other types of technology is ARA working on that could aid in bomb detection or prevention and what is the current status of this technology?

A sampling of our current work can be found on our website, in particular the capabilities under National Security (www.ara.com/Capabilities/national-security.htm).

A few items to point out particularly related to bomb response are:

  • Technologies (sensors and software) to remotely detect explosive materials
  • Software models that characterize complex bomb blasts in urban environments
  • Software that provides decision makers quantifiable data on risk of bomb blasts on structures and how to mitigate the effects

Why isn't bomb detection technology more widely used at mass events in the U.S.?

Bomb detection technology is widely used at mass events, and their use has presumably dissuaded people from trying to do harm. However, in an event such as the Boston Marathon, with tens of thousands of participants and observers distributed over large areas, the challenge to eliminate any possible threat is significant. It is often the case that authorities must balance between eliminating any possible threat and allowing for meaningful public participation.

What types of obstacles or challenges are there to detecting and preventing bombing attacks?

Anyone with access to the Internet can find information on how to create a bomb. If people have the desire and resources to create, to plant and to detonate a bomb, they will eventually succeed. They may not be able to go undetected (for example, the Unabomber), but they could carry out an attack. However, we believe that meaningful risk reduction to bomb attacks is possible with increased emphasis on smaller, cheaper sensor technology, continued information analysis research to help identify potential terrorists, and increased facility mitigations to minimize the terrorist impacts from bombings. We are working with U.S. agencies in several of these areas.

What is the best hope for protecting or minimizing the damage to people and property in a bombing incident such as that which took place today during the Boston Marathon?

Vigilance. People attending events need to maintain awareness of suspicious activity and alert authorities if something is out of place. Additionally, threats made by others and activities that cause concern should be reported to authorities to uncover people that want to do harm prior to them making or planting a bomb.