Detection Equipment: Have We Reached the Technology Ceiling?


Emergency responders need portable, reliable instruments to quickly characterize material hazards in accidents, intentional releases, and investigations of contaminated sites. This need is predicated on the response philosophies that (1) monitoring and detection instruments are critical elements of any risk-based response; (2) instruments and technology are tools in improving our response but do not drive the response; and (3) emergency responders must be educated consumers and trained professionals to safely and effectively use the technology and interpret its results while ensuring the safety of the public and emergency responders. This article will review the current application and use of monitoring and detection technology and its benefits and potential pitfalls.

In recent years, many in the first responder community have become enthralled with the technology introduced. However, in embracing the technology, have we lost the importance of taking a step back and analyzing the hazards of the incident? Should we look at incidents using a risk-based approach, or should the available monitoring and detection technology guide the response? Using a risk-based approach would include understanding the basic chemical and physical properties that would help to identify fire, toxicity, corrosivity, and the ability of materials to release energy (including explosive, reactivity, and radioactivity). By first understanding and identifying the hazard, the responder can then concentrate on identifying the specific product. The priority, though, should be to concentrate on the hazard.


Detection equipment manufacturers strive to make products that are smaller, lighter, and easier to use and that offer more functionality than ever before. This has become a bull market of attempting to draw in emergency responders to purchase more sophisticated products for less money. But have we reached the technology ceiling? Have we reached so far into the future with these sophisticated instruments that the emergency responder cannot effectively interpret the data the instruments provide?

(1) Photos by Chris Hawley.

An emerging philosophy within the emergency response community is that you should take a broader view when purchasing monitoring and detection equipment. This should include the application and use of multiple technologies for the same hazards that are available today. Using multiple and complementary technology enhances the ability to develop a more accurate answer after using a risk-based approach. The division should be based on whether you are detecting chemical, biological, radiological, or explosive material. No matter which material you are detecting and then monitoring, you must meet certain basic criteria.


Today’s portable chemical detector should be of a robust design, able to stand up to expected rough use. The manufacturer should include test data for the end-user that describes the type of ruggedness testing the detector went through. Examples of such testing are drop, heat and cold exposure, and water exposure. The detector should also be waterproof and lightweight, have a long battery life, detect and alarm at appropriate levels quickly and accurately, and be able to respond to target materials while remaining immune to others that could contaminate or adversely affect the reading.


Competition among manufacturers has brought the cost down, which greatly benefits the purchasers. Some models have dropped in cost by more than 60 percent—from $2,000 to $600-$700—making the newer technology much more affordable. Today’s meters are lighter and smaller, allowing responders to use them in more situations. These units have newer circuit boards and smaller, more powerful batteries with technology that is simple to understand and interpret.


Emergency responders have now added additional detectors to the standard four-gas meters in their cache, such as photoionization detectors (PIDs), with the idea that such technology will tell you what you have detected. Although a PID is an excellent device for detection of volatile organic compounds, many responders do not understand what a PID does and cannot interpret the information it may provide. This technology tells us how much there is but not what it is—it reports quantitative but not qualitative results.


The bar is now set higher for response technology. Because of concerns about terrorism and a possible chemical weapons of mass destruction attack, more advanced chemical detection devices have been made available. Responders have not been able to keep up with all of the new technologies introduced. They know how to turn a device on, sample with it, and even maintain it, but they often do not grasp the entire concept of how it works. The problem continues when the responders have to interpret the data from the meter and then make informed tactical decisions.




The solution is training. Most manufacturers provide training; however, much of it is done by the sales force instead of trainers with hands-on experience in the use and interpretation of the device in the field. Some manufacturers also fail to update the training on the technology. The user needs to be able to understand and interpret the data any time he uses the detector and should be updated on a regular basis on its use.


Chemical detection has come a very long way from the days of the coal miners and their canaries. The tools we have today are the best technology available. But have we reached the extent of our ability to use them properly? There is a strong belief that with proper and recurring training, the technology ceiling can be pushed up. The key, of course, is training. We must train on the equipment every day to become proficient enough so that we are prepared when an incident occurs. Departments should develop a training policy that allows each responder who may be assigned the responsibility to use the instrument to schedule a training session on a regular basis. Once you have such a policy in place, the ceiling of technology may not be that high.

GLEN D. RUDNER has been a hazardous materials officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management for the past 11 years. During the past 31 years, he has been involved in the development; management; and delivery of local, state, federal, and international training programs. He has authored many public safety publication articles and is a voting member of the National Fire Protection Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs Hazardous Materials committees.

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