Since the closure of Reese Air Force Base in 1997, it's become the Institute of Environmental and Human Health. A unique center for research on chemical and biological attacks. Now they're in the process of implementing a special program called the Texas Emergency and Response Program or TEARP. It's destined to be the only operations center in the state to track the spread of terrorist attack.
At 9:45 Thursday morning, a natural gas well explodes releasing toxic fumes into the air in Lehman Texas. Fortunately, this crisis is only a demonstration of what Texas Tech researchers hope to be ready for in the future.
"It illustrates exactly the point that we're trying to make. An immediate ability to see what's going on and then predict where that hazardous plume or that biological plume is going to move in the next several hours can save lives and property," says Director of TEARP, Steven Presley, Ph.D.
For the past two years, Tech researchers have worked to develop a Texas Emergency Analysis and Response program. It's a state of the art computer system that uses satellite imagery to pinpoint any kind of terrorist attack or crisis, in this case a natural gas explosion.
"We responded by taking satellite imagery and meteorological information integrating it with particle dispersion. Modeling integrating that with hazard and threat assessment information like how hazardous hydrogen sulfide is to people," says Presley.
An important part of the system is tracking where and how quickly this toxic plume spreads.
"You rely on meteorological data and then the model is based on turbulent flow which is that the cloud will spread as it goes further the cloud spreads further and how fast it spreads depends on wind speeds and atmospheric conditions," says Jeremy Leggoe, a Texas Tech University Chemical Engineering Professor.
Computers carefully monitor wind speed and direction. If those conditions change, the direction of danger shifts.
"What happened today was we had an initial wind prediction from the north and by the time the prediction period was over the wind switched around to the southwest and then back to the northwest," says Leggoe.
That's where a specially equipped car called the VIPER comes in. Equipped with special sensors the viper is sent to the disaster area to detect severe weather, or hazardous biological, chemical, or radiological conditions and report that information back to the command center.
"If there's a hazard and we want meteorological data from near that hazard we just take and we deliver the car and it can take data while it's moving. It can take data while it's still so it provides complete flexibility," says John Schroeder, with TTU Atmospheric Science.
The only obstacle standing in the way of this technology is money. Researchers are waiting for grant money to put their plans into action. Researchers we spoke with today say the threat of a terrorist attack any where in this country is always a possibility. However this command center will be built similar to a bomb shelter, able to withstand any type of terrorist attack.