In This Issue
Engineering and Homeland Security
March 1, 2002 Volume 32 Issue 1

Engineering and Homeland Defense

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: George Bugliarello

Since time immemorial, warfare has been shaped by technology and by the interplay of defense and offense. The events of September 11 have opened a new chapter in this saga. The question of homeland security is not new. It has been addressed in the context of the Cold War and of potential threats from rogue nations. But the events of September 11 focused national attention on the reality, urgency, and hydra-like nature of the terrorist threats confronting the United States. A nation confident in its openness has, for the first time in its history, experienced terrorism on a large scale and must now prepare itself for the possibility of ubiquitous threats to its infrastructure and the lives of its citizens. Every citizen is now on the front line.

We may never be able to prevent all attacks, but we can endeavor to reduce their probability and potential consequences. Terrorist attacks present enormous engineering challenges in information gathering, in data mining, in sensing, in cybercommunications and telecommunications, in the security of transportation systems and water, energy, and food supplies, in the management of emergencies and the rapid evacuation of
people, in the design and retrofitting of structures, in firefighting, in identification technologies, and in reducing biohazards and other threats of mass destruction. This issue of The Bridge addresses some of these challenges and some of the vulnerabilities that have emerged since September 11, which are heightened by the complex interdependencies of our infrastructural systems.

The engineering enterprise, which has built the sinews of an open and trusting society, must now help protect it from the insidious forces that want to destroy it. This will require that we rethink our ideas about engineering. For instance, in the design and operation of infrastructure, we need to consider not only capacity and reliability and cost, but also the ability to withstand terrorist attacks, or at least to mitigate their consequences. Much technology is already available that can immediately be brought to bear on these challenges. Other technology needs to be developed urgently. But the tasks must be prioritized in terms of risk. Not everything can be protected. This calls for a realistic assessment of what can be done, in the short term and in the long term, and of the cost effectiveness of proposed measures in terms of the risks they address.

We must identify and concentrate our attention on technological bottlenecks, such as adequate sensors, our ability to inspect from a distance ships entering a harbor, and our ability to locate victims buried in rubble or guide a firefighter through smoke in the interior of a building. These are all engineering challenges of the first order. There is a huge need to provide training in the most effective use of new technologies and to educate architects, engineers, urban planners, and infrastructure managers to the new realities. Things have changed. Cities, which in the past provided an element of protection to their inhabitants, today, as in World War II, have become prime targets, but in a different way. The tallest buildings and the longest bridges, the pride of our cities and our society, are now magnets for attack. We need to reevaluate the ultralight construction that made them possible and economical and reconsider their design. We also need to study the lessons we have learned from terrorist attacks here and abroad. For instance, one painful lesson, made clear by the consequences of the concentration of telecommunications infrastructures in the World Trade Center area in New York, is the need for redundancies and decentralization. Another is the importance of wireless communications as alternative channels of communication.

We need to consider not only how to protect our vital systems, but also how to restore them rapidly after an event that we might not be able to avoid. In terms of risk and priorities, bioterrorism is far more insidious than chemical terrorism and deserves a very high priority. So does, in our information society, the question of cyber security, as the penetration or interruption of our information networks by a determined adversary can do immense damage. Consider, for example, the catastrophic effects of a disruption to our financial system. Another imperative is the safety of the supply lines that bring food, materials, and goods to our population from all over the globe, as well as from within the United States. At this moment, the U.S. Customs, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture can test only between 1 and 2 percent of the material that enters the country through harbors, airports, and highways.

As new technologies are being developed to address these problems, we must remain extremely sensitive to issues of civil liberty and privacy. By necessity, some approaches will require the surrender of some of our traditional rights and changes in what we are accustomed to. For instance, the public must be educated to the fact that in the identification of terrorists or of the threat of a biological or chemical attack, false negatives are ultimately of greater concern than false positives. But effective technologies can greatly reduce the inconveniences caused by the latter.

These enormous challenges will demand a continuous dialogue between engineers and the larger community and the development of new partnerships between industry, government at all levels, universities, and research laboratories. Engineers are a key resource in our response to the imperatives of homeland defense, as well as in keeping our economy strong and productive.

About the Author:George Bugliarello is chancellor of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y.