SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A device which looks like an old-time train whistle connected to a locked box – and mysteriously set up on a downtown San Francisco street corner – has been determined to be part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Super Bowl security preparations.
According to the department, it’s an air sampling device used in the BioWatch program; a national system for detecting a biological attack.READ MORE: UPDATE: Evacuation Orders Downgraded to Warnings as Crews Mop Up Estrada Fire Near Watsonville
The monitor is connected to a pole which connects to a large, metal box with wheels. The box is padlocked and has a yellow tag on it with a stern warning from Homeland Security: “DO NOT UNPLUG!!!”
The BioWatch program has had its critics. According to a 2014 LA Times article, the program has cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars so far, and has been deemed so ineffective that a plan to launch a new, improved system was scuttled.
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The cancellation of the “Generation 3” acquisition was made at the direction of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, according to a memorandum circulated by Michael V. Walter, the BioWatch program manager.
Homeland Security officials earlier had told companies interested in supplying the technology that it would spend $3.1 billion for it during the first five years of operation.
To date, the overall BioWatch program has cost taxpayers more than $1.1 billion.READ MORE: Pleasant Hill Police Ask Public for Help Finding Stabbing Suspect
Walter said in his memo that the department “remains committed to the BioWatch program and the importance of improving our early warning and detection technologies.”
Jeff Harp, a security analyst for KPIX 5 and a retired FBI assistant special agent-in-charge, said the devices are better than nothing. “They’re keeping you safer than if you didn’t have them,” he says.
As for the day-and-a-half it can take to detect a biological agent, Harp said that’s still well within a window for effective treatment.
“If you or I had anthrax you would want to know immediately. Sometimes that isn’t always going to happen,” said Harp. “They’re looking at a 12-to-36 hour turnaround on the samples, but that still is enough time to get the prophylactic treatment if it was anthrax.
“If you go to drive a big nail in the ground and you have a small hammer … but you still have to drive that nail in the ground, then you’re going to use what tool you have to get that job done. Obviously, a bigger hammer is better to drive the nail … So it’s just one tool in the toolbox that they can use for early detection.”
A Homeland Security spokesman, S.Y. Lee, said the cancellation reflected a commitment to “cost-effective acquisition without compromising our security.”MORE NEWS: Alameda Police Seek Person of Interest in Friday Night Shooting
Last year, the department was addressing the challenges faced by the BioWatch program and was committed to the program’s role as part of a layered and integrated approach to the nation’s biodefense and surveillance systems.