Makers of devices used to detect anthrax and other biological threats are calling legislation by Supervisor David Chiu that would require users of threat detectors to register their devices misguided because only a small number of private companies use the technology.
Chiu’s legislation aims to discourage businesses from using biological agent detection devices by slapping on hefty fees for permits and false alarm violations. The legislation was passed by the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee Thursday and still requires approval from the full board.
Judson True, an aide to Chiu who addressed the committee on Thursday, said The City has not experienced any false reports of threats from companies using personal detection devices and described the measure as a pre-emptive strike modeled after a similar ordinance in New York City.
“We need to be safe, but we need to make sure we don’t create unnecessary public alarm when there is no need.”
Private devices are unnecessary because The City has its own bioterror threat response plan and responding to a false alarm could cost as much as $700,000, according to Chiu’s proposal.
Yet hundreds of the devices are on the market and companies are trying to sell them to San Francisco businesses and building owners, True said. Chiu’s office did not have a list of companies with biodetection devices, he said.
That’s because few companies have them, detector company representatives said.
The handful of companies that make biodetection devices sell primarily to emergency responders, said Matt Scullion, a business development director for Idaho Technology Inc. Few private companies invest in biological agent detection because it is too expensive — Idaho makes one that costs as much as a sports car — and because calling police or professional help would be a more natural reaction, he said.
“Would you trade a nice mid-level German sports car for one of those to keep in your home in case someone decides to send an anthrax letter to you?” he said.
Chiu’s ordinance would require that buildings with detectors register their devices with the department of health and would institute a fee schedule, including a $3,140 charge for the first detector and a $5,000 fine for a false alarm.
Jim Whelan, president of Alexeter Technologies LLC, agreed that few private companies use biodection devices and said new rules in San Francisco would not affect his company. But he also said restricting organizations that do have detectors could only hurt The City in a true disaster, when emergency responders are unable to reach everyone in need.
“I think this is one of those regulations when there is a real event, someone will tap their head and say, ‘Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,’” Whelan said.
The proposal aims to address the cost of false alarms.