Software Coordinates Response to Biological Threats

Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., have developed a decision-making software system – biological Warning and Incident Characterization (BWIC) – for state and local emergency managers.

Funded by the Department of Homeland Security, BWIC is being tested in two major U.S. cities, and serves as a support system for timely warning attack assessment, communications and effective response in the event of a biological attack. It is part of DHS's BioWatch program.

Scientists at Argonne integrated a diverse group of computer modeling programs that were written in a variety of computer languages by research teams at a number of national laboratories, including Sandia, Pacific Northwest, Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley and Y-12. They also developed the main BWIC Situational Awareness Tool that keeps the emergency manager apprised of the latest estimates determined by analysts using modeling components.

"The BWIC package," explained Pam Sydelko, group leader of the Modeling, Simulations and Visualization Group at Argonne's Decision and Information Sciences Division, "is designed to be an easy-to-use collaborative modeling and analysis system."

The system is built "BWIC is built on a flexible framework developed at Argonne to integrate diverse computer modeling tools "so that they seem like one seamless decision support system with one consistent user interface," Sydelko said.

The package provides a common view of the event as it evolves to all agencies involved. Cities will have an assigned set of BWIC users who each have access to his or her personal BWIC analysis workspace. A special user, called the BWIC operational system supervisor (BOSS), has access to all of the information and has specialized tools for exporting data and information to other jurisdictions and agencies; others users may have access to only certain data or analysis tools, as needed. Analysts with specific expertise such as public health, environment or emergency management can perform their own analysis, view each others analysis results and update the BOSS command screen with information.

"BWIC allows the people who need to know the information to have it as soon as possible," Sydelko explained. "It provides for timely and reliable warning and supplies tools to identify the population at risk."

The BWIC system offers a variety of modeling and analysis tools. These tools include:

  • Geographical information system maps,
  • Air dispersion models,
  • Day and night population information based on census data,
  • Epidemiological forecasting tool,
  • Subway and facility interior models, and
  • Links to public health surveillance information.

How It Works

As part of the BioWatch program, biological data is collected regularly from many stations around a city, processed and entered into the system. If a hazardous bioagent is found, local and state responders go to work using BWIC to begin assembling data to support decision-makers. For example, the public health officer posts updates of which hospitals are receiving patients with symptoms that fit the biological agent that was detected.

Then, the environmental expert uses the data to refine the air dispersion model to make estimates of what areas may be affected next. As the situation evolves, each update is sent to the emergency commander.

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