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Trace Explosive Detection for Enhanced Public Security

Author: Ryan Holland, Product Manager, FLIR Systems, Inc.

According to the 2018 Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, an estimated 69% of terrorist attacks carried out in 2017 by the world’s most deadly terrorist group, the Islamic State (ISIS), were attributed to explosives devices.

Although the global war on terror has severely reduced the territorial claims of leading terrorist organisations in recent years, groups like ISIS remain capable of reaching civilian targets across the globe. As the tactics of global terror organisations evolve, governments must remain vigilant by making explosive detection a core component of homeland security away from the battlefield. These evolving programs must account for and improve detection capabilities across three key scenarios:

  • The broader security field, such as storage facilities and other critical infrastructure.
  • At key checkpoints and destinations, meaning airports or other points of entry for goods and people.
  • Soft public targets where terrorists may execute attacks, including public concerts or sporting venues. 

A Comprehensive Solution Requires a Mix of Portable and Fixed-Site Detection

When explosives are used during a terrorist attack, there exists a series of planning, procuring, and assembling stages that require explosives to be transported, stored and deployed. Therefore, any explosive detection program must account for not only the potential event of the attack itself, but also provide a comprehensive detection program to uncover trace explosives at any point of the planning and deployment process.

An effective counterterror explosives detection program requires a comprehensive suite of tools to cover the evolving threats of terrorism worldwide.  Thankfully, decreases in explosive detection equipment size, weight and power requirements have resulted in devices with exceptional portability, providing significant advancements in counterterror effectiveness. This includes portable, handheld explosive trace detectors (ETDs) that can provide an additional layer of security in areas not traditionally covered by fixed-site detectors. Portable ETDs can effectively extend the range and utility of anti-explosives counterterror operations through the ability to gather on-the-ground intelligence via rapid, high throughput screening across dynamic landscapes. 

The FLIR Fido X-series products are portable ETDs that can be deployed across a wide range of operational environments to proactively detect explosive threats. Less predictable, strategic deployment for traditional and emerging applications will increase the likelihood of detecting terrorist personnel and explosive materials. It also serves as a strong deterrent to groups that are plotting future attacks by detecting and removing threats before they reach a checkpoint or target destination. 

Disrupting the Explosive Material Supply Chain At Target Destinations and Checkpoints

Explosive threats can be detected when ETDs are deployed at strategic locations throughout the security landscape and used to screen people, suspicious locations or items. On-site detection, particularly at fixed sites such as airports, utilise tools such as x-ray or bench-top ETDs. At ports of entry or shipping, portable ETDs must be more widely available and deployed in larger numbers, providing crucial screening opportunities to disrupt the planning and execution of would-be terrorists.

Protecting Soft Targets Via Comprehensive Explosive Detection Processes

In the event that a terrorist group evades disruption to the planning, procuring, assembling and transportation of explosives, detection personnel must also be prepared to monitor soft targets, such as concerts halls and sporting events, or any relatively uncontrolled environment where large numbers of people gather and where many points of entry may exist before and after an event.

During the past decade, FLIR has developed and produced technologies for the detection of trace explosives to aid detection personnel at the front lines. TrueTrace®, available on the Fido X-Series, is a multiplexed detection approach that combines fluorescence and chemiluminescence technologies, capable of detecting nanogram quantities of explosive material. Examples of detectable explosive threats include TNT, Ammonium Nitrate, ANFO, Urea Nitrate, TATP, and Nitroglycerin, among others. Advanced signal processing algorithms are then used to identify threats and eliminate false positives, within seconds, to help security personnel react quickly and decisively.

Key Considerations For Determining An Explosives Detection Program

In addition to selecting the right mix of ETD systems, ease-of-use is critical. Trace detection equipment can go unused due to complexity, lack of training or maintenance burdens. For many operators, trace detection is not a primary responsibility, resulting in a lack of familiarity with the equipment. In response, FLIR has focused on developing a simple user-interface, where basic training content is delivered on the device and threat information is easily interpreted through visual, audio or vibrational queues. Simple, basic maintenance procedures are also emphasised to reduce complexity and eliminate system downtime.

Cost is also an important consideration when deploying ETD systems. Security and law enforcement agencies require equipment that fits within the respective budgets of diverse operational requirements. Larger security teams are now able to deploy multiple ETDs. For smaller teams, ETDs are now attainable to extend the scope of explosive detection capabilities.

By placing detection devices in more positions across the security landscape, be it in the field, at important checkpoints, or at specific soft targets, homeland security and law enforcement can more effectively detect and disrupt terrorist activity.


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