How BASIS grew into the BioWatch system

Editor's note: The following is part of a series of articles looking back at the Lab's response immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks and our contributions since that day 20 years ago.

Less than a month after 9/11, 14 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) employees received calls at their homes at 1 a.m. on a Saturday morning (Oct. 6, 2001) and were asked to report to the Lab within three hours, without being told where they were going or when they would return.

Their mission, in tandem with colleagues from Los Alamos, was to place air sampling equipment in Washington, D.C. and to establish a sample processing laboratory. Since the spring of 2000, a team of biologists, computer scientists and engineers from both national laboratories had been developing a detection system that could alert authorities of bioterrorist attacks to protect American cities.

Known then as the Biological Aerosol Sentry and Information System, the BASIS detection system was developed at the behest of the Department of Energy (DOE), which wanted to field the system at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and have it ready a year early for a full-scale test.

The early readiness of BASIS in March 2001 turned out to be an asset for the nation later that year, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and anthrax mailings, when the 1 a.m. call came and a detection system was needed to protect Washington, D.C. Now, more than two decades later, much of that system is still in place today and still operational.


Two decades of operation

Their instruments went into operation two days later, on Oct. 8, 2001. Since then, biodetection systems developed by Livermore and Los Alamos have continued to serve as a warning system against any biological attacks without interruption for nearly 20 years.

Though the system has undergone some major changes and is now called BioWatch, the biodetection technology operates today in more than 30 American cities under the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office