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UW-Madison reseachers to help with anti-terrorism effort

Vicki M. Bier

Vicki M. Bier (large image)

Lawrence C. Bank

Lawrence C. Bank (large image)

In an effort to secure our country from future terrorist attacks, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are developing techniques not only to prioritize possible targets, but also to develop effective risk-reduction and resource-allocation strategies.

Their work is part of the newly established Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, which is headquartered at the University of Southern California and funded for three years by a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Interested in studying the risks and economic implications of terrorism, a group of UW-Madison faculty, led by Vicki Bier, a professor of industrial and systems engineering and engineering physics, will explore strategies for securing the United States and its infrastructure against attack. The strategies include determining what targets might be most vulnerable to an attack and what risk-reduction strategies could successfully thwart such an event. Overall, the group's work will provide insight into related homeland-security issues, such as the allocation of resources among different types of threats.

"The potential number of terrorists threats is enormous," says Bier. "But we can't defend everything. We must pick and choose where our resources are needed most."

To do this as effectively as possible, a screening method must be developed to rank a target's vulnerability to a variety of attacks, says Bier. Targets include facilities that are part of key infrastructure systems, such as electricity, transportation and telecommunications.

Ranking this vulnerability goes beyond determining the level of physical and economic damage of an attack. It also includes an assessment of the feasibility of launching a successful attack on the site and the availability of technology to carry it out.

Through collaboration, Bier and other researchers nationwide will draw on expert opinion to develop a process for prioritizing the list of potential terrorist targets and the damage that could result after attack. UW-Madison's Lawrence Bank, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, will work closely on the project. His research interests include assessing the vulnerability of buildings to intentional attacks.

While knowing what sites or critical systems could become terrorist targets is important, it is also important to know how best to defend those likely targets. Addressing this issue is at the heart of UW-Madison's work on the risks and implications of terrorism.

"Threats adapt as we try to reduce them," explains Bier.

One way Bier plans to overcome this problem is by using game theory — the analysis of a situation involving individuals with conflicting interests. When it comes to terrorism, Bier says, "We want to take into consideration the conscious decisions of the other players. How will terrorists adapt their strategies based on what we're doing?"

Bier offers this example: If all post offices were equipped with machines that sterilize anthrax, other delivery services, such as the United Parcel Service — or even bicycle couriers — could become a means for distributing the deadly spores.

By determining how terrorists could adapt to the hardening of certain targets, researchers, policymakers and others involved in national security can develop more effective risk-reduction strategies, says Bier. She adds that this information could also apply to local agencies, such as state departments of transportation.

Larry Samuelson, a UW-Madison professor of economics and a leading expert on game theory, will be involved in the effort to explore risk-reduction strategies based on how terrorists might respond to them.

"In a world where we don't have as much money as we'd like, we need research to underpin our decisions so we're spending our money in the most effective way possible," says Bier. "Because we cannot afford to defend everything to an equal level, it's important to have as good a method as possible for deciding where to put our resources."

To conduct this research, Bier and her colleagues at UW-Madison will collaborate with researchers at other institutions involved in the new homeland security center, including New York University, North Carolina State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

"The center represents a broad effort and encompasses the work of people in different disciplines at different institutions," says Bier. "Although UW-Madison is just one part of the center, our contributions will be an integral part of the overall project."


Emily Carlson