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ARCHIVED - Science on call: Mobile labs safeguard high-profile events

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An unsung legacy of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games was Science Town, a collection of state-of-the-art laboratories housed in trucks and trailers, staffed by crack teams of government scientists and technicians. During the Games, Science Town provided rapid on-site testing for suspicious substances that posed possible security risks.

The eyes of the world were on Vancouver for 17 days in February 2010. Almost two billion people, from all parts of the globe, tuned into their televisions to watch the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. On site, the Games had 2566 athletes participating from 82 countries, with 1.5 million tickets sold to enthusiastic spectators.

An international event of this calibre brings with it “a unique security challenge,” says Ian Summerell of Defence Research and Development Canada - Centre for Security Science, who was the RCMP’s science coordinator during the event.

Experts from Defence R&D Canada set up their radiological-nuclear mobile lab during a technology demonstration.
Experts from Defence R&D Canada set up their radiological-nuclear mobile lab during a technology demonstration.

In planning the security for the Games, the challenge was that the public and competition sites had to be kept safe, without interfering with the schedule. As Summerell explains, “We couldn’t shut down the Games for a day while we figured out if a mystery chemical was dangerous or not.”

Bringing science on site

The response to this challenge was Science Town ? a nickname that stuck during a trial run at the Francophonie Summit in Québec in October 2008. In the broadest terms, Summerell says, “Science Town puts scientific expertise on site to help operational people in the RCMP and the military deal with threats posed by explosives and a variety of chemical, biological and radioactive substances.”

The beauty of the Science Town concept is its flexibility. Each of the 10 labs is a stand-alone unit, so that only the labs needed for a particular event are brought to the site. The experts are on loan from their regular jobs for the time required for the security operation.

Science Town comprises 10 state-of-the art mobile laboratories housed in custom-designed trailers or trucks, which are well equipped to provide rapid on-site analysis of chemical and biological warfare agents, radioactive materials and explosives.

The laboratories are staffed by some of the federal government’s top scientists and technicians. As Summerell says, “when the labs are set up and operating, there really is not a better place in Canada to bring a mysterious sample for testing.”

Science Town’s Olympian debut

During the Games, eight of the ten Science Town labs were used at the Vancouver and Whistler sites, with a rotating staff of 104 scientific personnel. A reduced Science Town was maintained at each site for the smaller Paralympic Games that followed in March.

videoScience Town is a set of mobile labs that can be deployed during major events like the G8 and G20 summits.

Watch a video about Science Town

During both events, each of the labs was called upon to analyze suspicious samples and bomb threats. In the end, the goal of the security planners was fully realized: the Games were undisturbed by any terrorist or malicious incidents.

After the Games, Science Town’s next deployment was into the much hotter waters of the G8 and G20 Summits in June 2010. Seven labs and 60 scientific staff were deployed at the G8 in Huntsville and the G20 in downtown Toronto.

Setting up Science Town

Many variables shape the configuration of Science Town for an event. The bottom line is that threats from explosives and biological, chemical and radioactive agents are assumed to be possible at high-profile events, and on-site analysis of suspicious specimens is needed.

The size of the event, however, will dictate the number of labs used. For Vancouver, the decision was crystal clear. “Nothing gets bigger than that,” says Summerell, “so you call out all your resources.” 

The level of support needed for smaller but equally high-profile events is less clear cut. “We are working through the concept of operations with our partners,” says Summerell.

Who's who in Science Town

Science Town's 10 state-of-the-art mobile laboratories were designed by the scientists themselves and funded by the Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear and Explosives Research and Technology Initiative.*

When they are not deployed for security operations, the labs are maintained and used by their host government departments to support ongoing science programs. Here is the breakdown:

  • Two biological labs: both at Public Health
    Agency of Canada
  • Two chemical labs: one each at Environment Canada and Defence R&D Canada (DRDC) Suffield
  • Five nuclear labs: one each at DRDC Ottawa,
    DRDC Suffield, Atomic Energy of Canada,
    and two at Health Canada
  • One forensic lab: RCMP

The proximity of local expertise is another consideration. As an example, Summerell described some considerations for a visit to Ottawa by the President of the United States, another ?no-fail security event.? In this case, Ottawa being home to a wealth of labs, the deployment of Science Town could be limited to the mobile labs needed to supplement the expertise already close at hand.

Science Town: looking forward

For the future, Summerell says the concept of Science Town is evolving based on lessons learned at the Vancouver Games and G8/G20 summits to ensure it is ready to roll for any high-profile events that come up. end

* The Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear and Explosives Research and Technology Initiative is managed by Defence R&D Canada - Centre for Security Science on behalf of the federal government.

ISSN 1927-0275 = Dimensions (Ottawa. Online)