Chemical Detection
Written by Dr. Chris Petty   

With the unfortunate onset of extremist activity both domestically and abroad, there is an ever-increasing need for evolving technology to protect our first responders and communities. In recent years, there’s been a change in the types of chemicals first responders are encountering and, as a result, threats are becoming more diverse and unexpected.

There’s been an uptick in what we refer to as the “kitchen menace,” where individuals combine supplies commonly available at hardware stores to create weapons of mass destruction. Criminals now have the ability to turn everyday materials into often-deadly delivery systems for more vicious attacks, while also introducing a more diverse collection of materials into the equation.

When arriving at the scene, first responders may be informed by prior intelligence but must consider themselves initially “blind.” With the increased threat level of today’s environment, they must approach ready for anything. It has become the unfortunate norm that first responders expect to uncover something deadly and dangerous upon initial entry. Having the right tools to safely approach and uncover the story of the scene, step by step and piece by piece, are no longer simply nice to have—they are a must.

From Breaking Bad to Breaking Down the Lab

Clandestine laboratories are one area in particular where the numbers of unknown threats are abundant. As fans of Breaking Bad know all too well, people are cooking up trouble anywhere and are using whatever materials they can get their hands on. Unfortunately, not many illicit labs look like Walter White’s superlab underneath the industrial laundry property; instead, they look more like Jesse Pinkman’s basement. For first responders arriving on a scene, it is often difficult to tell what they are actually looking at. Is it an underground meth lab? Homemade explosive workshop? Could it even be a terrorist cell constructing a chemical weapon? Or just a high school chemistry project gone wrong? Intelligence and situational assessment are key to ensuring these scenarios are not confused, but this is a very real situation faced by first responders. Training reinforces the danger of making assumptions too early in the process.

Today, responders need to be ready for battle and prepared for the worst. They are typically equipped with a range of tools and protective gear that they will utilize at different stages during their mission. The toolkit contains a robust selection of analytical tools and meters, each with a specific job to perform, but unfortunately each comes with its own set of limitations. This is why the combination of these tools is so vital. They work together to keep first responders safe while securing the scene ahead of them.

Knowing that the lab scene could be anything, first responders will utilize an initial set of tools on approach to gather basic intel from the situation. While each team has their own set of gear and protocols, a common example is the “Stay Alive Five” protocol training developed by HazMat IQ. This covers first entry and utilizes five measures that allow responders to be more prepared, reduce their incident response time, and ensure responder safety in situations when hazards may not be visible. These tools, available commercially as the SAFe kit, include a radiation detector, pH paper, fluorine paper, a temperature gun, and a lower explosive limit (LEL) meter. By utilizing each tool in this kit, responders gain a better and clearer initial understanding of the environment and scene ahead of them. This in turn helps to determine what more sophisticated tools to select and what protective gear to wear as they move closer.

Moving forward, other key components of the first-responder arsenal are IMS (ion-mobility spectrometry) devices that have the ability to detect a short list of dangerous chemicals in the atmosphere. IMS technology is incredibly sensitive and handheld IMS products are currently widely deployed by the military and municipal teams. Small, robust, and relatively simple, IMS systems have been successfully used to give responders early warning of the presence of potentially harmful chemicals and explosives. The fundamental limitation of IMS however, is that it will suffer from frequent false-positive measurements: alarms for serious threats such as chemical weapons that are not actually present. These frequent false alarms, notoriously triggered by benign and common substances such as diesel fumes, cologne, or household cleaning products, can have serious consequences.

This highlights the need for other tools that can quickly resolve the alarms presented by IMS devices and other early warning systems. To fill this gap in the first-responder toolkit, a handheld chemical detection device powered by high-pressure mass spectrometry (HPMS) can be used to enhance downrange situational understanding. An HPMS device is a threat focused chemical detection and identification tool designed to sniff out priority chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial materials, and precursors. The dramatically increased selectivity of HPMS over IMS allows a much broader list of target materials, as well as identification of those threats without false alarms, even when background or interferent compounds are present.

When first responders are armed with this capability, as they get deeper into the suspected hot zone and the IMS devices alarm, their HPMS device can give fast confirmation that there is, in fact, a threatening chemical in the atmosphere. Once the suspicious lab has been safely entered, HPMS devices can be used to further secure the site by analyzing chemicals, from surface residues to ambient and headspace gases, to bring unique and focused capabilities to the survey mission. The key to filling this capability gap is gathering fast actionable intelligence on whether or not the team needs to be concerned with the worst potential threats.

Once a suspicious lab has been safely entered, high-pressure mass spectrometry devices can be used to further secure the site by analyzing chemicals, from surface residues to ambient and headspace gases, to bring unique and focused capabilities to the survey mission.

Once the site is rendered safe by ruling out the presence of priority threats, first responders can continue and further interrogate samples to put together the puzzle pieces at the scene. Raman and FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) tools will help first responders determine what is what. These bulk material detection devices are highly selective and can differentiate between 10,000+ different compounds. Everything from baby powder to amphetamines can be identified to help responders determine the intended activity at this site and process the scene accordingly. However, Raman and FTIR are primarily used as bulk solid and liquid identification techniques. This means that a large sample is required in order to make the measurement and it is rarely suitable for looking at low, or trace-level, concentrations and residues.

The faster first responders can assess the threat level and rule out the presence of deadly chemicals, the faster they can get in and resolve the situation. The goal is to gain as much situational awareness as possible at each stage of approaching these clandestine labs to enable faster reaction and neutralization. With responders facing more malice and danger than ever before, it is safe to say they cannot assume what they will find at the scene and should always be prepared for the worst. A robust response toolkit is imperative in today’s world of the unknown and unexpected.

About the Author

Dr. Chris Petty is a co-founder and VP of Business Development and Marketing with 908 Devices. Petty is an executive with more than 21 years of experience in the analytical instrumentation industry. Chris has been responsible for development of new markets and market expansions, introducing product platforms in numerous high-growth acquired businesses at Thermo Fisher Scientific.

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