One of the power players in the coronavirus response is an often underestimated component of the Department of Homeland Security: its Science & Technology Directorate.
Vice President Mike Pence charged DHS component Federal Emergency Management Agency with leading the coronavirus response in March, and FEMA worked with DHS component Transportation Security Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address immediate public health concerns.
But the S&T Directorate immediately began tweaking technologies and brainstorming innovative solutions to some of the technical challenges coronavirus first responders faced.
In June, the directorate developed a way to decontaminate personal protective equipment with a multicooker at home. Just this week, the directorate published an online calculator to estimate the airborne decay of coronavirus particles based on UV index, temperature and relative humidity.
The directorate also worked quickly to tailor existing technologies for the coronavirus response. Local governments, businesses and first responders use DHS technologies like the Information Sharing Assessment Tool (ISAT), the Next Generation Incident Command System (NICS), Regional Information Sharing Portal (RISP) and the Single Automated Business Exchange for Reporting (SABER) during a variety of emergency scenarios, like natural disasters.
The directorate tweaked those platforms and portals in order to accelerate vital information sharing in the early days of the pandemic.
Local and tribal governments as well as businesses could use the ISAT, NICS portal, RISP portal and SABER to share information about resources needs, important health services, learn about the coronavirus and public health guidance, coordinate emergency services, and learn which businesses are closed or still operating.
SABER, especially, “has been an interesting effort” as part of the S&T Directorate’s coronavirus response, S&T Program Manager Ron Langhelm said.
“[SABER is] a project we're supporting for the private sector and business side,” he told GovernmentCIO Media & Research in an interview. “With the COVID response, we had a different perspective on that, looking to identify open/close statuses of businesses and consolidate that in a one-stop location and streamline the data reporting, so from the FEMA aspect they have one place to go to see all the SABER data. It's a middleman type of solution for them."
Langhelm detailed how a report from SABER with COVID-specific best practices helped businesses in their coronavirus response and reopening decisions.
RISP, which is a data-sharing portal often used to log resources needs and coordination in the event of a hurricane or earthquake, quickly pivoted to tracking personal protective equipment needs in hospitals.
“With COVID they were using those tools to monitor the overall status of personal protective equipment, what was available and what the requirements were,” Langhelm said. “They were able to adapt one of the tools for doing surveys and identify specific structures to walk into a hospital building and take inventory of personal protective equipment equipment.”
Making a quick clean pivot to coronavirus-focused emergency response technologies required a sound cloud strategy, he added.
“Getting to a data sharing-centric vision revolves around having access available,” Langhelm said. “The cloud environment is probably one of the biggest factors in enabling that. In addition to that, streamlining the process for moving data around and making it available — a lot of what is being done now is not so much sharing a copy of the data as it is sharing access to visualize the data, having access granted to it to bring it into your system.”
Without adaptive leadership and a flexible, team-oriented mindset, S&T might not have been able to adjust its emergency-response technologies as quickly as it did.
“The general development [of these technologies] was to support all hazards,” Langhelm said. “It was a matter of sitting down with my peers and staff and identifying what we could do to help solve some of these problems. I think it's the nature of this community, and most of these applications are built in a dynamic enough environment to support that.”
At the core of S&T’s quick technological response was a deep understanding of the department’s mission.
“I think the biggest thing for us is we're performing the essential DHS mission while trying to minimize the risk of exposure both to DHS employees and the general public,” S&T Director of Technology Centers Jamie Johnson told GovernmentCIO Media & Research. “One of the things we do at S&T is work across all the components in DHS. We provide a lot of tech support and research solutions across the department. We work with all the operational components, CBP, Secret Service, FEMA. We do a lot of information sharing. We test for technologies that come in, [conduct] a lot of technology scouting where we scan the landscape for potential technology solutions that could be readily provided back to the components.”
In some cases, the team will tweak technologies if needed. For example, S&T has off-the-shelf disinfectants and ways to detect a person’s temperature at a distance to potentially help limit the spread of coronavirus via airports. S&T is currently exploring these options for TSA use. The directorate also invests much energy and resources into assisting DHS’ contact-tracing efforts to stem the coronavirus tide.
Johnson said S&T is looking into artificial intelligence, automation and data analytics for DHS’ contact-tracing efforts.
“Our lab research efforts are a high priority for us, trying to determine how the virus reacts or stays on a surface for a certain amount of time, we're doing a lot of research at our NBACC laboratory,” Johnson said. “There's a lot of interest from a number of agencies on what that looks like. That's a long-term research project. We're also doing some modeling and simulation on the virus in aircraft — this is done in our chemical security lab. We're particularly looking at airborne particulates and how they transmit in those environments.”
Johnson said S&T is also exploring contactless ID scanning for airports to limit transmission of the virus as well as using data to monitor wastewater and determine where the virus is concentrated in cities.
“We're trying to come up with methodologies for wastewater data collection. That's been done, it's been proven, but how do you scale it up to a national scale so it can be used by state, local and tribal governments? There's not a lot of standardization of data,” he said. “We're working with NIST and the EPA and HHS to figure out what might be the best approach going forward.”
For Johnson, maintaining agility and nimbleness are critical to helping DHS and other federal agencies address and combat the coronavirus.
“We're trying to anticipate what those needs are,” he said. “We really want to continue to position ourselves to move these technologies forward to help us better respond and detect COVID and eliminate COVID, if you will. We've got a lot of unique capabilities at S&T that can be applied to different mission spaces.”