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Back to Archives | Back to February 2009 Contents 

Weapons of Mass Effect: Managing 21st-Century Threats with Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives Detection Devices

By Captain Scott Trudeau, Livermore, California, Police Department

he newest challenge facing the law enforcement profession is unlike any other it has seen before. Incident planning and event intelligence in conventional times were straightforward. The local criminal element had a face and in many cases a known, predictable method of operation that could be detected or omitted from the event. Terrorism has no face and, more importantly, no predictable method of attack on an objective or target. When and who will be next? How will the law enforcement community prepare for and prevent these acts before they injure and kill many innocent citizens?

Communities not only expect their local agencies to meet this challenge; they demand that agencies take all possible measures of prevention as the number of terrorism-related events increase around the globe. Thus, the profession’s evolving mission will require a thorough understanding not only of its new role in this process but also of how it will integrate new and emerging antiterrorism plans as well as chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives (CBRNE) detection technologies into its standard operating plans.

Historical Perspective

Traditionally, weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are seen as explosive devices that, aside from the impact of the explosion itself, spread radiation. Overlooked in this conception of WMDs are chemical weapons such as nerve agents, choking agents, and blister agents, any of which might cause discomfort, illness, or death. Additionally, there are biological weapons developed from viruses, toxins, or fungi that can be delivered through a wide range of methods. To demonstrate the ever-increasing ways terrorists could inflict devastation on human targets as well as the environment, many now refer to this group of weapons collectively as weapons of mass effect (WMEs).

WME applications can be packaged and delivered in just about any manner imaginable. Discouraging or preventing the use of these devices must go beyond traditional methods such as hardening targets and gathering intelligence. Officers must be hypervigilant and technologically prepared to battle these 21st-century threats. By implementing WME sensor technologies, agencies can begin to identify threats before they are deployed and take advantage of perhaps the most effective means by which to detect and respond to acts of terror against the general public.

The history of CBRNE sensor use within the law enforcement profession is not long and thus far has been limited to larger metropolitan agencies seen as potential terrorist targets. Many such agencies have become acquainted with these devices only as a result of being in close proximity to private companies participating in research and development who wish to test and promote their devices. For most agencies, there is no specific plan for CBRNE detection, and more often than not, plans for chemical or biological weapons detection fall into the nontechnical realm often referred to as the “blue canary” method of detection. In other words, instead of considering, testing, purchasing, or deploying detection devices, most agencies rely on sworn personnel to respond, observe, and report on such situations as chemical spills or the release of hazardous gases.

Without proper planning and organizational change, CBRNE detection will more than likely fall into the same method of response, playing into the human tendency to invest in preventive measures for calamities only after they have been personally experienced.1 Beyond the obvious need for such devices, though, it is essential for law enforcement agencies to develop incident management plans and identify innovative response approaches that can incorporate the use of detection equipment.

In the April 2008 Police Chief Buyers’ Guide, companies offering detection devices such as those described in the article were found in the following categories:

  • D095 Gas detectors

  • E125 Explosive detection systems

  • G090 Metal/weapons detectors

  • H070 Bomb detection

  • H080 Bomb disposal

See the 2008 Buyers’ Guide for how to contact these companies, in print or online at!

Public Acceptance of Sensor Deployment

There can be little debate over the need for CBRNE sensors as a part of the police arsenal to combat potential acts of terrorism. It is easy to imagine these sensors being deployed routinely by law enforcement agencies in the very near future. Whether at major sporting events, Broadway theater shows, or even tourist destinations such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., there are endless possibilities for the use of this equipment. However, agencies considering the use of CBRNE devices must first work to ensure public acceptance and understanding of how they are used.

Without question, issues surrounding the deployment of monitoring devices in public venues would generate a high level of concern. One example concerns medical privacy, in a situation where authorities are alerted to small doses of radiological material residual from an individual’s medical treatment.2 In addition, an “alert” on a package or a backpack that causes the item to be searched leads to search-and-seizure concerns.

Educating the public about the technology and its uses for public safety is a must. In the future, improved technology will result in fewer false-positive and false-negative alerts, enhancing public acceptance much as did improvements in airport x-ray scanners and baggage-screening devices. Members of the public have also become accustomed to video surveillance technology in various aspects of their day-to-day activities in many public and business locales. CBRNE sensors could be described as a natural accompaniment to systems already in place.

Funding and Management Concerns

To implement CBRNE monitoring, agencies must find funding to obtain the technology and train personnel to use it. There are already companies marketing wireless toxic gas/radiation detection systems that can monitor threats up to two miles away from a public safety command post, but costs can run from $50,000 for a basic system up to $100,000 or more for a custom system. Training necessary to operate such systems is not complex; it can be completed in as little as 16 hours for field personnel. There are several potential funding sources for these systems. Public service organizations within the community, private businesses, and state and federal grants are available to aid local agencies in acquiring the technology and funding necessary training.

Additionally, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant money may be available through cooperative acquisition processes established between cities and the respective county sheriff’s office. Perhaps the best source for funding and equipment comes through the DHS’s Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program (CEDAP). CEDAP is operated by the DHS Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness to help smaller communities that have not received direct federal homeland security grants. In 2005, the department awarded technology valued at $8 million to 697 jurisdictions under the program. The CEDAP program provides the technology as well as technical assistance and can provide the personnel training.

With these funding options, it is doubtful that the upfront cost would displace general fund money needed for other agency activities. But some of the biggest challenges lie not in budgeting but rather in managing and responding to the information gleaned from the sensors once they are deployed. Who will dictate the initial deployment and subsequent use of the system? How will the devices be monitored and subsequently interpreted? Will false-positive or false-negative reactions undermine the process? Do agencies respond en masse to any CBRNE detections from these devices? Will city managers, city councils, and community residents support and understand the multitude of issues that will arise from the deployment of CBRNE sensors? With the inevitable use of these devices and the multitude of questions surrounding their use, how will law enforcement agencies deploy and manage these new technologies in the future?

Implementation Planning

A carefully assembled implementation plan is also necessary to ensure proper use of CBRNE devices. In any jurisdiction, community residents who could be affected by the use of these devices need to be involved in the plan, and the agency needs to be responsive to issues raised during this process. Lines of communication must be opened with as many stakeholders as possible early on in this process.

Agencies should take care to implement CBRNE sensor technologies in a manner that balances the benefits of such devices with individual rights against unwarranted intrusions. First steps in this process require agencies to review the strategies available to them and determine the most appropriate course to take. Chiefs, on recommendation from their staffs, should make local elected officials aware of the direction their agencies are heading, including an overview of what can be expected. Assuming there is no resistance to the plan, the chiefs should then consider developing a steering committee, comprising community residents, business leaders, and police staff, to oversee a monitoring process that includes not only the annual report to the City Council but also a complete auditing process evaluating the effectiveness of the program. Should the decision be made to move forward with the new technology, it is recommended that the following steps be considered as part of this plan:

  • Develop polices and procedures for use, using internal stakeholders

    • Set goals and objectives for use of CBRNE sensors

    • Define who is authorized to use equipment

    • Define who must be notified of use

    • Identify who is responsible for maintaining records and completing reports on use

  • Involve the community, service clubs, business groups, and stakeholders

    • Identify personal privacy concerns that will arise from monitoring

    • Gauge the level of acceptance and understanding of how the system is intended to work

    • Involve the groups in all aspects of the project to attain a comfort level

  • Identify and obtain funding

    • Pursue DHS grant funding

    • Seek donations from businesses as appropriate

    • Use general funds if necessary

  • Develop a public information program specific to the use of CBRNE sensors

    • Hold informational meetings

    • Use the agency Web site to post applicable information

    • Display signs at the entrance points to all public facilities and venues where the devices will be used

    • Establish an agency point of contact for questions about the program

    • Establish a protocol for filing resident complaints about the use of the devices

    • Publish results of the yearly evaluation of the program

    • Add a CBRNE sensor component to the training that takes place in the disaster preparedness and neighborhood watch programs

Deployment and Response

As with any major event or incident chain of command, issues are sure to arise. Most agencies have used the Incident Command System (ICS), which works exceptionally well when all the players are from the same community and have the ability to train together on a routine basis.3 However, the release of a WME would most assuredly require the response of many different agencies. This type of response means that some agencies will be working together for the first time; thus, a seamless transition must take place. Most agencies should be well on their way to training staff on the National Incident Management System (NIMS) model, which was developed to enable responders from different jurisdictions and disciplines to respond better to natural disasters and emergencies, including acts of terrorism.4 With the proper command structures and training in place, different organizations and agencies will be able to seamlessly blend their efforts in a predesignated manner. This structure will also help iron out command-related issues well in advance of an incident. This includes a well-defined, centralized decision-making process that uses the unified command system to assign resources and responsibilities for a smooth and effective delivery of services.

As each of these agencies respond, teams comprising law enforcement officers; emergency services workers; and fire, hazmat, and explosives experts will work together to resolve the incident. Each state’s office of emergency services should consider purchasing and lending CBRNE sensor equipment and technology to local agencies for use at events in smaller communities, which may not be able to handle additional financial burdens. When dealing with CBRNE-related incidents, decision makers must understand each other’s roles, protocols, procedures, and overall capabilities and ensure their respective communications capabilities are interoperable to optimize the work of all aspects of a joint public safety response.

Program Monitoring Concerns

Tactical Concerns: Aside from the obvious response-related concerns, deployed CBRNE sensors will be effective only if decision makers can monitor the devices from a remote location. Portable, wireless sensors capable of being rapidly deployed and monitored from mobile or fixed command posts are critical for success. Monitoring locations can receive real-time information readily available to incident commanders, who will be tasked with making the call as to how to respond to sensor alerts. Computer software working in conjunction with these sensors can provide “plume modeling” to give commanders an idea of the scope of the potential danger (that is, the range and direction of the affected area should a WME be activated). Evacuation decisions can be made before the activation of a WME, putting emergency responders ahead of the curve—and thus saving lives.

Short-term concerns when deploying CBRNE sensors include the need for better technology to better determine the validity of a sensor reading before a responding agency takes drastic action. False readings from sensor devices could lead to public distrust as well as unwanted pressure from local government officials; furthermore, local law enforcement leaders might be more likely to second-guess sensor data, leading to a slower response time and potentially more injuries or greater loss of life in an actual event.

Strategic Concerns: The overall accountability for using CBRNE sensors rests with agency chiefs; thus, clear, concise policies and procedures must be in place. Moreover, training on the use and deployment of these devices must meet the needs of the end users. Without this foundation in place, the program cannot be evaluated properly or monitored effectively. CBRNE sensor programs should be administrated from a specific area of an agency where deployed devices can be used and monitored consistently and effectively. Oversight of the program should reside at the senior management level. Senior agency leaders should be charged with not only monitoring the program but also evaluating and reporting on the program as well. This should include quarterly reports directed to the municipal council and made public as part of this process. As part of the evaluation process, survey data should continue to be tracked and used to demonstrate any positive or negative public sentiment regarding the project.

CBRNE Testing in Livermore

During the past few years, some agencies have had some success in moving to address CBRNE response-related issues. The Livermore, California, Police Department (LPD) is one such agency.

The ability to effectively monitor high-profile special events involving dignitaries, political gatherings, or any event where large crowds will gather will be of significant benefit to the law enforcement profession. With this in mind, in July 2004, Sandia National Laboratories partnered with the LPD to test the new high-tech sensory systems the laboratories had developed. The two partners deployed a networked series of environmental detectors and high-resolution cameras during a Fourth of July celebration in Livermore to assess the abilities of biological, chemical, and radiological sensors. The sensors were connected to a central command post through encrypted wireless transmission, allowing police and fire managers to monitor data remotely (see figure 1).

Figure 1. The intelligent, rapidly deployable sensor
integration management architecture for the Livermore
project supports operations and simulation.
Four fixed and mobile intelligent sensing modules
(blue) integrate a network of chemical and biological
warfare agent sensors. The sensors are securely
monitored and controlled from a remote location by
an authorized user.
Image courtesy of the LPD and Sandia National

The deployment assessed the ability to integrate this technology into the LPD’s existing mobile and fixed command post structure. During Livermore’s Fourth of July celebration, personnel from the LPD and Sandia placed multiple environmental detectors and cameras (as well as mobile sensor monitors and wireless data-processing equipment) at various points in the vicinity of the celebration. Fortunately, there were no detection alerts during the exercise. Fitting the equipment easily within its mobile command post structure (see figure 2), the LPD was able to test the ease of use of the wireless data equipment with the personnel deployed at the event. Agency and laboratory personnel were also able to send wireless data simultaneously to simulated (fixed) command posts set up within LPD headquarters and Sandia National Laboratories, located one and three miles, respectively, from the event. As a result of the test, agency leadership felt that deploying CBRNE sensors such as those supplied by Sandia would have many benefits for agencies seeking to enhance safety and security during a large public gathering.

Figure 2. The LPD’s Community Outreach Vehicle
served as the command post for the city’s Fourth of
July celebrations and was the primary monitoring
location for LPD and Sandia staff involved in the
sensor testing.
Photo courtesy of the LPD


Implementation of a CBRNE sensor program should involve careful planning. With many new devices coming on the market, agencies must determine their specific needs and the level of protection necessary to accomplish the objective. Proven technology that has been field tested and deemed reliable by other law enforcement agencies should be a goal. Site visits to agencies already using CBRNE sensors is highly recommended. Once the agency has identified its needs and desired level of protection, a well-thought-out plan to move the project forward is a must. As with any undertaking of this magnitude, taking the time to develop the plan before implementation will reduce the stress levels of both the agency and the community served. One of the keys to making the plan work is realizing that what works in one community might not work in another, meaning that hardware designed for one application might not be suitable for another. Regardless, an end-to-end strategic plan that involves all stakeholders is a must.

The decision to purchase and use CBRNE sensors will not completely protect a jurisdiction’s residents in every possible future situation. The law enforcement community embarks on a new mission with the implementation of these devices. Rather than bringing crime prevention tips and tactics to the general public with the hope that they will be used, agencies are in fact themselves applying crime prevention tools across their communities. ■

Captain Scott Trudeau is a 25-year veteran with the Livermore, California, Police Department, serving as a tactical commander and emergency operations manager for his department. Captain Trudeau has conducted a research project on the use of CBRNE sensor technology for law enforcement use in incident command situations.


1See Nancy G. Leveson, SafeWare: System Safety and Computers (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1995).
2One such example is outlined in Stuart Cameron, “Securing the Cities: Agencies Working Together to Detect Dangerous Radiological Materials,” The Police Chief 75, no.10 (October 2008), on page 145. This article also provides further perspective on local agencies’ efforts to implement WME detection programs.
3For more information on the ICS, see “IS-100.a Introduction to Incident Command System, I-100,” Emergency Management Institute, Federal Emergency Management Agency, (accessed December 31, 2008).
4For more information on NIMS, see “NIMS Resource Center,” Federal Emergency Management Agency, (accessed December 31, 2008).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 2, February 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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