Classroom: Technologies in Homeland Security
On one Thursday morning in September, students piled into MacLean B01 as the ten-o’clock hour approached, filing into their seats, lining up along the walls, and dragging up chairs to attend ENGS 11: Technologies in Homeland Security. “If we’re going to have this many people interested in the class, we’re going to need a larger room,” said Professor Susan McGrath. The following week, the class moved to Spanos Auditorium, capacity 120.
The size of the class underscores how large homeland security looms in today’s American psyche. But as McGrath points out, concerns about defense are nothing new.
“Homeland security concerns have existed ever since humans have, as long as there was a home to protect. It is not something that started with 9/11,” she says. “Various technologies have been developed over the centuries to assist with protecting nations. Homeland security encompasses much more than terrorist events.”
In class, McGrath provided examples of threats to homeland security, including the 1918 influenza epidemic, World War coastal protection initiatives, and Hurricane Katrina. “I want my students to gain an appreciation for the complexity and variety of incidents that are considered ‘homeland security’ events,” says McGrath. She also wants students to understand the need for a wide variety of relevant technologies. “There is not one technology that represents the Holy Grail,” she says. “Homeland security requires incorporation of many technologies that apply to each of the emergency response cycle phases: mitigation, planning, response, and recovery.”
The technological possibilities cover everything from electronics to materials to infrastructure and beyond. “Some obvious historical technologies include firearms and defensive structures, such as castle walls and moats,” she says. “Others include satellite technologies to monitor activities throughout the world, and health measures, such as vaccines to prevent disease from spreading.”
McGrath’s class examines advances in personal protective equipment, physical and cyber security systems, communications and information technologies, intelligence gathering, robotics, and simulation and training technologies. McGrath tells them about new ways to detect chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear events, including handheld units that emergency responders can use to sample air for radiation and chemicals. “Research is also going on with sensor networks, where you would have sensors distributed throughout major metropolitan areas,” she reports. “With such widespread systems, radiological or chemical events could be detected automatically.”
Since 2001 McGrath has been working with civilian emergency responders and the military to use sensors and wireless networks to monitor the health of troops and responders in the field. Director of the Thayer School-based Emergency Readiness and Response Research Group, McGrath encourages students to contribute their ideas for new technologies.
“There will always be threats: earthquakes, disease, pressure from other countries. There is no such thing as 100-percent protection,” she says. “Homeland security is something everyone should be concerned with, as the effects of our failure to properly address potential events will have an enormous impact on our society. And since homeland security technologies are so varied, just about every engineering discipline has something to offer.”
— Kathryn LoConte