New York City wants feds to install more bioterror sensors

Published 18 January 2008

New York City wants more bioterror sensors installed on city streets; DHS, which funds 90 percent of the program, says it is willing to install a few of the units now, at a cost of $100,000 each, but that it would rather wait for new, improved sensors before paying for a city-wide roll out

You would think that there would be nothing controversial about installing a new generation of early-warning sensors for biological terrorism, but New York City officials now battle with the federal government over the number of sensors. City officials want more of the units, which cost $100,000 each, but DHS officials, which funds 90 percent of the units’ cost, say they prefer to wait for even newer technology, saying the government wants “accurate and affordable” bioterrorism protection for all cities. “It needs to be better,” Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the DHS, said of the current units. Their technology was developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. “The technology we currently have is very cost prohibitive for any widescale deployments,” he said.

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told the Washington Post that the federal government “could do a better job” of meeting New York officials’ desire for more bioterrorism detectors. New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said he could not reveal the number or location of the recently installed sensors due to security concerns. “We’ve had tremendous support from people at Homeland Security getting this in place. We want the budget allocations to continue,” he said. He said the city wants Homeland Security to “commit to the program long-term.”

Knocke said the Bush administration, which funds the podium-sized sensors out of the national BioWatch program, has spent about $400 million since 2003. Calling the air filters recently installed in New York “good, not perfect,” Knocke said the current technology is “cost prohibitive” for use on a widespread scale. “Our general philosophy is that you want to strive for the best technology given limited resources available,” Knocke said. According to the Livermore National Laboratory, the Autonomous Pathogen Detection System (APDS) monitors the air for bacteria, viruses, and toxins. The devices can be deployed for a week without human intervention and report pathogens to a central location. Representative Peter King (R-New York), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said DHS officials believe emerging technology will soon surpass the APDS. “They don’t want to fund right now because there is new technology coming very soon,” King said.