The ability to detect explosives in the field remains a challenge, but the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has multiple teams working on one piece of the puzzle—facilitating standards and uniformity of results.
Many federal agencies and first responders use canines to seek out explosives. NIST is tasked with creating vapor-based training aids for the dogs. Bill MacCrehan, a NIST research chemist, tells Security Management that the Metrology and Standards for Canine Olfactory Detection of Explosives Group has developed a technology that captures and releases the odors associated with explosives. With this technology, trainers don’t need to use actual explosives when training the dogs.
There are no mandated regulations on how explosives-detecting canines are trained. A number of public and private trainers have different training methods, so one canine’s trained snout varies widely from another’s. Another issue is that “not all samples give off the same amount of odor,” MacCrehan explains. “One sample of a C4 explosive could give off 10 times as much [odor] as another sample in our testing. When a trainer says their dog is trained to detect C4, which [sample] is it? One is 10 times stronger than the other.”
MacCrehan’s team works on identifying which compounds in an explosive the dogs can actually smell. They isolate the vapors of those compounds and apply them to training aids. Another important task of the team is to develop a method for containing and releasing the vapors. MacCrehan says there are some commercial training aids on the market, but they don’t account for how the passage of time might affect the scent. NIST, on the other hand, is working to develop a method that will keep the vapor’s composition constant over time.