Explosives Detection Technology Basics

Hospitals, schools and universities are taking a closer look at how they can prevent and detect bombings. X-rays, IMS and Raman Spectroscopy are three technologies that can help.

From handheld explosive detectors used by explosive ordinance officers to X-ray inspection systems used to screen freight cargo at international airline hubs, the technology behind explosives detection is rooted in science; specifically, chemistry and physics. Devices can now sample the air to detect and identify a suspicious substance in trace amounts so small that they are measured in parts per billion. They can also be used to identify an item’s chemical makeup by its atomic number. Technologies, such as trace detectors and X-rays, help prevent dangerous items as simple as firecrackers or as large as containers of weapons-grade explosives concealed in trucks, suitcases or other packages from getting through security checkpoints.

There are multiple, innovative technologies that bring the expertise of the laboratory to the front line, or front door, of defense against explosives.

Related: 9 Ways to Prevent Bombings on Your Campus

Adopt a Multilayered Approach

Multilayered security screening processes have become widely adopted since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, in as diverse settings as military applications, major international or small local airports, government buildings, county courthouses, city hospitals, corporate campuses and school special events.

The theory of multilayered security is that several steps need to be taken to detect and identify threats. While we know that nothing guarantees 100% safety, when multiple tools are used, we achieve a better approach to safeguarding the public.

Security system configuration takes into account a number of factors that should be considered in each environment, including traffic, population and the layout of the area where screening is to take place. When possible, environments might call for a single point of entry. Some areas might ban large packages or bags, or demand technology that can scan them at a high rate of speed.

An example of this could be at the main entrance of a school before classes begin. Often times security systems are paired with explosives detection K9s and other personnel who complement a facility’s tactical layers of technical capability. Because of the diverse settings that call for explosives detection applications and the wide range of screening technologies available, some security measures might make sense for one environment, but not for another. Vendors should work one-on-one with customers to ensure they get the solutions to fit their needs while remaining conscious of budget concerns. One thing is certain: no matter the market or the combination of layers in security, explosives detection is a must in today’s security operations. 

Related: Common Explosives Detection Technologies Currently Available

Know the Screening Phases

There are two phases in explosives screening: detection and identification. In baggage screening systems, specially equipped X-rays are most often used. Ion Mobility Spectrometers are also used for trace analysis. In some circumstances, when the risk of touching or moving a suspicious substance is too high, Raman technology is used for non-contact identification of bulk solids deposits on a surface or through clear or translucent containers.  In full body X-ray scanners, the detection of ingested or hidden items on a person can be revealed.

Each of these technologies is unique and helps with a variety of detection methods. See Common Explosives Detection Technologies Currently Available to explore the science behind each.

Don’t Be Afraid of Detection Technology

While there is a lot of complicated science behind what may seem like a simple process to the user, the ease-of-operation of many of these machines is why they are so ubiquitous now. Top vendors take the expertise of their R&D and market intelligence, and fit their solutions to the needs of their customers. They also have the ability to take complex technology and make it suitable for any level of user, anticipating the need of customers a few years forward, including emergent threat possibilities that may crop up in the next five to 10 years.

While the methods and layers of security vary, modern multi-layered security systems require explosives detection. Fortunately, there are an array of precise methods that can be personalized and customized for the needs of the user to ensure they can deliver the innovative science, technology, and expertise of detection experts, in a cost-effective manner that will help keep people safe.

James Viscardi is vice president for U.S. critical infrastructure and emergency response with Smiths Detection.

If you appreciated this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our FREE digital newsletters!

Leading in Turbulent Times: Effective Campus Public Safety Leadership for the 21st Century

This new webcast will discuss how campus public safety leaders can effectively incorporate Clery Act, Title IX, customer service, “helicopter” parents, emergency notification, town-gown relationships, brand management, Greek Life, student recruitment, faculty, and more into their roles and develop the necessary skills to successfully lead their departments. Register today to attend this free webcast!

Get Our Newsletters
Campus Safety Conference promo