Firefighting Technology Roundup: Bioterror Detection, Heat-Monitoring Sensor, and More

By Mary Jane Dittmar

Safety Reflector Basis for Bioterror Threat Detector

At a meeting of the American Chemical Society held in April in New Orleans, researchers reported that they have been developing tiny versions of retroreflectors that can detect bioterrorism threats and diagnose everyday infectious diseases. The reflectors are based on the technology used on sneakers and bicycle fenders to help ensure the visibility of runners and riders in the dark and on roadways to guide motorists.

According to Richard Willson, Ph.D., leader of the research project: "Our goal is the development of an ultrasensitive, all-in-one device that can quickly tell first responders exactly which disease-causing microbe has been used in a bioterrorism attack. In the most likely kind of attack, large numbers of people would start getting sick with symptoms that could be from multiple infectious agents. But which one? The availability of an instrument capable of detecting several agents simultaneously would greatly enhance our response to a possible bioterror attack or the emergence of a disease not often seen here."

In addition, Willson's team, which also includes Balaknishnan Raja, based at the University of Houston (UH) and colleagues at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and the Sandia National Laboratories branch in Livermore, California, is developing another version of the technology that can be used in doctors' offices and clinics for rapid, on-site diagnosis of common infectious diseases. The focus of one of the diagnostic tests is norovirus (also known as the "cruise ship virus" or the "winter vomiting virus").  

Raja, who presented the report at the meeting, noted that retroreflectors may be the most visually detectable devices ever made by humanity. He explained that the device reflects light directly back to its source in a way that produces extreme brightness. Apollo 11 astronauts left a laser-ranging retroreflector on the moon during the first lunar landing mission in 1969 and, Raja said, scientists still use it to study the moon's orbit.

Paul Ruchhoeft of UH has developed retroreflectors so small that more than 200 would fit inside the period at the end of this sentence. The retroreflectors then become part of a lab-on-a-chip, or a microfluidic device, with minute channels for processing 'microliter'-scale amounts of blood or other fluids. [A microliter is one-millionth of a liter (a liter is about one quart). A drop of water contains about 50 microliters].

The retroreflectors shine brightly when a sample of fluid doesn't contain disease-causing viruses or bacteria flow through the channels to the retroreflectors. If a sample contains bacteria, portions of the reflectors go dark, signaling a positive test result. Raja explained that the change from bright to dark can be detected with simple optical devices instead of expensive, complex optics. The retroreflector technology is also faster and eliminates the need to specially prepare samples for analysis.

The device currently has seven channels, for the simultaneous testing of seven infections. However, Raja said that more channels can be added. In fact, he noted, a long-term goal is to 'to multiplex the device and detect many pathogens at once."

The National Institutes of Health's Western Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research is funding the research. Safety reflector technology from footwear getting new life in detecting bioterror threats, April 10, 2013,

Firefighting Technology: Personal Heat-Monitoring Sensor

Personal Heat-Monitoring Sensor

The SafetySpot personal monitoring sensor uses multiple patent-pending technologies that estimate core body temperature from the carotid artery, just below the ear, and the temporal artery region, across the temple to just above the eyebrow. If the users estimated core temperature rises above 103°F for more than 45 seconds, the sensor will activate, warning of potential heat-related illness. The SafetySpot, which has ISO 9001 certification, incorporates a precision temperature sensor and data-acquisition system that is accurate to (+/-) 0.5F. Worn inside the helmet, it transfers heat efficiently from the surface of the skin to the device and to the internal sensor. Once activated, the alarm will transmit an audible beep and flash a red LED for 30 seconds until the user's estimated core temperature returns below the alarm threshold.

The unit is water resistant, is about the size of a quarter, and weighs less than an ounce. The battery has a life of one year from its first activation. The SafetySpot is not a medical device or designed for use in any medical or patient-monitoring application. It is intended only to act as an early warning for heat-related illness.

In recognition of the very high volume of heat-related health incidents associated with firefighters and first responders, part of the beta development and refinement of the device involved active personnel from the Clayton County (GA) Fire Department. The devices were used exclusively with the department's new recruits, especially in the burn building training facility. The feedback the department provided to the products developers at Duke University was very positive, according to Norm Fenton, managing partner of Sport and Industry Safety Devices. Prior to this calendar year, the device had been used exclusively by personnel within the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Energy. Additional information can be found at

Would Emergency Parachutes Work in High-Rise Building in a Disaster?

Inventor Morris Shahbazi thinks so. He developed an emergency chute that can open within 100 feet of drop, which he hopes will become standard equipment for high-rises throughout the world.

Shahbazi demonstrated his chute 13 times; all the jumps went perfectly. He placed his chute on the market after he acquired permission from skyscraper managers in Panama.

The inventor, who describes his chute as a 'high evacuation system,' began working on the SOS Parachute project following the World Trade Center attacks. In addition to having an SOS Parachute company office in Panama, he has one in America, Dubai, and Singapore and plans to open one in London.

The complete release is at

Mary Jane DittmarMARY JANE DITTMAR is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering and conference manager of FDIC. Before joining the magazine in January 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor's degree in English/journalism and a master's degree in communication arts.

Buyers Guide Featured Companies

More Buyer's Guide >

Fire Dynamics

Survival Zone

Extrication Zone

Tech Zone