Revisiting PROTECT

by Ian Schaefer

Two decades of federally funded research and development culminate in a real-time chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) system for detection, surveillance, and crisis management for the nation’s critical infrastructure. Argonne National Laboratory continues to tailor this system for various transit and other critical infrastructure environments.

The 1995 terror attacks in Tokyo, Japan, in which sarin gas was released at multiple points in a busy subway system, can be described as a turning point in critical infrastructure protection. This deadly event and the slow, chaotic response effort that followed brought worldwide attention to the vulnerabilities in high-traffic metropolitan transit systems. It took more than 75 minutes for Tokyo authorities to gather information on the nature of the attack and to form a coordinated response; during which time, many of the 12 deaths and more than 1,000 reported injuries might have been prevented.

Impetus for a Solution As a result of the U.S. national security concerns brought to light by the Tokyo sarin incident, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Argonne National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories – in collaboration with the DOE’s Chemical/Biological National Security Program (now Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate) – became the focus of research into improving emergency response capability in national critical infrastructure. Established in 1946, Argonne is one of the largest of the DOE centers for research and development in numerous areas of science and engineering, including matters of national security.

In 1998, Argonne received funding from the DOE to develop an early warning detection and response system to safeguard public locations from chemical and biological terrorist attacks. This became known as the Program for Response Options and Technology Enhancements for Chemical/Biological Terrorism (PROTECT). Its primary objective was to significantly reduce the time required to form a coordinated response to an incident, potentially saving lives.

Anatomy of PROTECT The PROTECT program was designed as an automated hardware and software system to provide both early warning and response management in the event of an incident. By integrating an array of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) sensors, PROTECT provides onsite personnel and emergency responders with accurate information about airborne attacks in large, complex public indoor spaces. Command, control, and communications are coordinated through Argonne-developed software, Chemical Biological Emergency Management Information System (CB-EMIS), which integrates sensor data, mapping, train location, and atmospheric data to provide comprehensive, real-time situational awareness. The software is also equipped with advanced dispersion modeling capabilities, which provide facility authorities and responders with critical information on potential consequences of airborne threats both above- and below-ground. When an alarm is triggered, the system provides responders with recommended actions based on a complex set of conditions.

Evolution of the System In late 2001, after three years of initial development, the PROTECT system was first tested in an exercise in a major U.S. subway system. In partnership with an urban transit authority, the Federal Transit Administration, and the National Institute of Justice, smoke tests were conducted to characterize and model airflow, and a detector array was installed to evaluate detector performance in the harsh environment of a subway station. The exercise demonstrated that the combination of rapid detection and networked communications could reduce the response time from an estimated 31 minutes down to only five minutes. This significant reduction in coordinated response time is essential in the effort to limit human casualties.

With this documented success, the government sought to extend the benefits of the PROTECT program to other critical infrastructure applications, particularly urban transit systems. The Federal Transit Administration oversaw the initial transfer of the PROTECT technology to interested jurisdictions by offering workshops for transit authorities and training seminars in the use of the detectors and command-and-control software. Security considerations prevent theentification of the major metropolitan areas where PROTECT has been installed, but these transportation systems represent some of the largest and most challenging environments in the United States.

In 2002, additional chemical sensors and an automated digital closed-circuit television system were integrated into the CB-EMIS program. The closed-circuit television integration enhanced the system with the ability to automatically point video cameras toward the location of a detector alarm, providing important visual confirmation to system operators in order to verify conditions at the site of the alarm and to potentially mitigate false alarms. With these additional improvements and completion of a multi-station subway system test, the PROTECT program became fully operational in 2003.

In 2007, Smiths Detection was selected by Argonne to commercialize the PROTECT program. The company engineered and deployed the system into additional urban transit systems as well as several other critical infrastructure applications. In 2016, the PROTECT commercialization license was assigned to KD Analytical Consulting Inc.

Success & Improvements In the ensuing years, PROTECT has seen continuous improvement in both the hardware and software components of the system. Numerous new detectors have been integrated with CB-EMIS. Recent advances in CBRNE sensor technology provide improved speed and accuracy of detection and offer greater reliability of the system as a whole. At the same time, Argonne engineers have made significant strides in applying a scientific, whole-system approach to reducing false alarms. The CB-EMIS command-and-control software is continuously updated, and has been integrated with a number of physical security information management systems in order to accommodate existing infrastructure and security management operating procedures at each site where the system is implemented.

The PROTECT system is currently in use in several major metropolitan subway systems, covering a ridership of more than 200 million people per year. The system’s success lies in its integrative approach to the problem of emergency management in complex interior infrastructures. The combination of sensitive detection devices and automated camera surveillance enable facility operators to quickly confirm the validity, nature, and scale of the release of a threat agent. With the aid of the CB-EMIS software, they can tailor an appropriate response in coordination with an ongoing stream of relevant situational information. Real-time data can be sent securely to responders in the field and to surrounding emergency operation centers.

In addition to its ability to greatly reduce response time and provide responders with detailed situational awareness during a chemical event, PROTECT offers other benefits to facility operators and emergency responders. The system’s detailed, real-time surveillance capabilities – particularly the sophisticated video system – have proven useful for law enforcement and firefighters in dealing with many types of incidents involving fire, smoke, unknown substances, and suspicious packages as well as a wide range of criminal activities including bomb threats.

Although the PROTECT system is highly automated, it requires diligence and planning in order for an implementation to work effectively. Important factors include: engineering study of the infrastructure, airflow, and traffic patterns; response preplanning and development of standard operating procedures; training and drills; and coordination between onsite personnel and responders.

The Future of PROTECT The scientists and engineers who developed the PROTECT program envisioned a broad range of applications beyond urban mass transit subway systems. These additional applications included single- and multi-modal transportation facilities such as: airports, trains stations, and bus terminals; high-value buildings and event facilities; as well as temporary installations for high-threat events and remote locations. Today, Argonne’s Global Security Sciences division is tailoring the PROTECT system for use with both smaller and larger sensor sets in commercial and other building infrastructure environments.


Ian Schaefer is director of marketing for KD Analytical, a company that provides threat assessment, system engineering, technical support, maintenance management, and training to critical infrastructure protection and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) response teams at local, state, and federal levels. He serves as product manager for the company’s CBRNE maintenance management software-as-a-service, ReadiTrak™, and as a technical lead on projects with mission-critical software components. KD Analytical currently manages maintenance of the detection equipment in one of the PROTECT mass transit installations, and is the exclusive licensee of Argonne National Laboratory’s CB-EMIS Software.