Handheld Field Test Kits: Innovations & Best Practices
Written by Greg Giuntini   

TESTING FOR GUNSHOT RESIDUE, explosives, and illegal drugs in the field has historically been fraught with challenges and potential risks, making the new generation of handheld detection solutions an area of major interest from several perspectives. Seasoned first responders and law enforcement officers are familiar with old-fashioned testing pouches that required a substantial amount of the potentially dangerous substance in question to test. These same responders also perceived contact with potentially hazardous substances a part of the normal daily risks of the role they had chosen.

However, innovation and new ways to leverage technology, including mobile devices and handheld solutions, have ushered in a new era of detection — one where following best practices and standard operating procedures makes field tests inherently more accurate, thorough, consistently repeatable, documented with ease, and safer for all involved.

Understanding the latest advancements in field testing for myriad substances, ranging from gunshot residue to explosives to fentanyl and other illegal drugs, is crucial for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Keeping first responders, law enforcement, crime scene investigators and the general public safe.
  • Reducing the risk of inaccurate results that could lead to false arrests.
  • Protecting and properly documenting evidence so criminals can be swiftly brought to justice and prosecuted.

Test kit manufacturers, scientists, subject matter experts and end users from federal, state and local agencies have spent years refining and improving field tests and developing best practices for their use. Additionally, today’s modern field tests have never been more reliable and affordable.

Let’s examine two different categories of modern handheld field tests.

Smartphone Mobile Solutions
By combining state-of-the-art smartphone applications with legally adopted colorimetric test pouches, investigators can now use virtually any modern phone or tablet to conduct reliable field tests for a wide variety of substances, including:

  • Gunshot Residue – Lead
  • Opiates – Fentanyl, Heroin, Morphine, Oxycodone, Suboxone, and more
  • Stimulants – Cocaine, Methamphetamines, Amphetamines, and more
  • Synthetics – Cannabinoids (K2/Spice, and more) and Cathinones (Bath Salts)
  • THC – Marijuana, Hash Oil, Hash, Edibles, Vaping Products, and more
  • Hallucinogens – MDMA/Ecstasy, PCP, LSD, Psilocybin, and more
  • Depressants – Ketamine, Barbiturates, Rohypnol, and more

Field Test Scenario Using Smartphone or Tablet Mobile Solution

An example of how this mobile solution works is with new lead-based gunshot residue testing, which provides personnel such as homicide detectives, forensic teams, event security, and school resource officers with a fast, highly accurate, and cost-efficient method for trace detection. Gunshot residue can be easily detected from items such as firearm barrels, surrounding areas around discharge points, impact sites, casings, hands, clothing, bags, and packaging.

The field test process:

  • An officer starts by using a test pouch’s removable swab to sample the area of interest, then reinserts the swab into the test pouch.
  • The officer then squeezes the pouch to break the internal seals of the test reagent and waits for a reaction with the specifically formulated chemical agents to occur.
  • Once the color change occurs, using the smartphone’s camera through the app, the QR code on the pouch can be scanned.
  • The smartphone app instantly generates a positive or negative test result.

Proper evidence documentation is also crucial to integrating test result information into the investigation and prosecution process:

  • Without proper evidence handling and documentation, an unfortunate or potentially deadly situation can continue unfolding.
  • Evidence documentation is automated by the mobile app in line with standard criminal justice protocols, including the time and GPS location stamp of the test, the ability to append time-stamped photos of the scene, along with automated completion of required forms for communicating and sharing the evidence in non-editable PDF format.
  • The details in the auto-generated report are reverse-engineered from a defense attorney’s perspective to preemptively answer every question that an officer would normally be asked in court: How did you make the color determination? How do you know it was gunshot residue? Where were you when using the test? What time? What date? Did you take pictures of the test? It’s all captured in the app instantly upon scanning the test pouch.

Advancements in Safety

Unlike traditional test kits that rely on glass vials that can break and puncture the test sample or officer, today’s most modern pouches allow officers to detect trace and bulk levels of drugs with minimal to no exposure to the sample using significantly thicker ampoule packaging that doesn’t allow for punctures. With a low detection threshold in the nanograms, it also allows users to detect trace residue. This is essential for GSR testing, and also in drug testing situations where evidence collection can be made from bags even if the sample is missing or has been fully used. This is also especially useful for trash pull probable cause applications. Traditional test kits require a bulk amount to be scooped and tested, leading to significant officer exposure and also sample destruction. This is particularly dangerous for officers who may be field testing fentanyl.

Other Benefits of Modern Tests

  • Reliability – Automating the color assessment process through the smartphone app removes the need for officers to reference color charts and use their own subjective interpretation. This dependence on officer color determination has led to lawsuits, false arrests, and reputational damage.
  • Time-saver – On-the-spot testing at locations such as crime scenes, traffic stops, events, medical scenes, and hazmat scenes can be performed in seconds. Its trace capabilities also avoid delays like those seen when fears of fentanyl exposure led agencies to send any powdered samples directly to laboratories without first conducting field tests. This generated a significant backlog in many lab and court systems. Using a mobile app eliminates this delay and drastically shortens the time between presumptive testing and prosecution.
  • Efficiency and Affordability – Some vendors provide multi-drug testing for fentanyl analogues, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, and other opiates, including oxycodone and buprenorphine, in a single test. With legacy field test kits, an officer would need to use up to six test kits to detect this same range of drug substances. The cost-per-test for pouches ranges from vendor to vendor, and by type of test. Due diligence can help law enforcement agencies save thousands of dollars annually while, at the same time, improving their testing capabilities.

Handheld Mobile Devices
There are also a variety of handheld devices for field testing on the market that have great benefits for crime scene investigators and other law enforcement and military agencies. In addition to detecting gunshot residue and illegal drugs, these devices are also used to detect military-grade explosives, homemade explosive materials, and precursor materials down to non-visible trace levels.

The form factor differs by vendor, but today’s modernized specifications include:

  • Fully sealed and waterproof outer shell, flat bottom for no-hands operation, multiple user selectable modes of detection, with technology that meets National Institute of Justice standards for presumptive detection. (Here’s some useful jargon for ETM readers who are very technical: think MIL-STD 810G Compliant, IP66 Water Resistant, No Moving Parts, No Heat Source, FCC/CE Compliant, with Automated Colorimetrics, No Radiation Source, No Bake Out, and Ultra Low FP rate for Consistent reactions.)
  • Lightweight, portable, and able to fit in the palm of the hand.
  • Easy to use, including single-button operation for users in bomb suits and Level A hazmat gear.
  • Rapid “Off” to “Ready-to-test” capability.
  • On-Device Report Building, with the ability to easily print or export PDFs.

In addition to the substances detected by the smartphone solutions outlined earlier, handheld mobile field devices use test cards that can also detect military-grade explosives, homemade explosive materials, and precursor materials, including:

  • Nitroaromatics – TNT, TNB, DNT, DNB, Tetryl, and more.
  • Nitramines – HMX, RDX, PETN, SEMTEX, EGDN, and more.
  • Nitrate Esters – Pyrodex/Triple 8, Nitroglycerin (NG), and more.
  • Inorganic Nitrates – Black Powder, Ammonium Nitrate, Urea Nitrate, and more.
  • Chlorates – Sodium Chlorate, Potassium Chlorate, and more.
  • Peroxides – TATP, HMTD, and more.
  • Perchlorates – Sodium Perchlorate, and more.

These devices have all of the capabilities and advantages of advanced smartphone-based field tests outlined earlier, with the addition of other key benefits, including:

  • Explosive detection – Devices of this type will give investigators (and first-responders, bomb squads, high-security event teams, and hazmat teams) the ability to immediately identify explosives. In protective scenarios this can help prevent incidents, and in crime scene scenarios this will enable teams to receive immediate, actionable information that speeds investigations and properly captures evidence. Handheld mobile field test devices are also utilized daily by law enforcement and military agencies for explosive and drug detection at airports, border crossings, ports of entry, sporting venues, and major events, as well as part of comprehensive anti-terrorism activities to keep citizens safe across the United States and the globe.
  • Anywhere, anytime testing – Handheld mobile devices enable users to overcome challenges such as adverse weather conditions, crime scene conditions, or cumbersome protective gear to speed evidence collection.

Best Practice Training and Procedures
Proper training and certification should be obtained to ensure the most accurate use of new field-testing technologies. As a best practice, law enforcement entities should make sure their product manufacturer provides comprehensive and certified training courses either in person or online. For most agencies, acquiring a manufacturer training certificate is critical if court testimony is ever required.

Here are components you should include in training programs:

Understanding Colorimetrics

Your trainer should make sure all investigators and officers are familiar with automated colorimetric analysis, the method of determining the presence of a substance by creating a chemical reagent color reaction. Colorimetrics is a globally recognized and adopted method for presumptive detection of numerous substances, including drugs. Colorimetric results that use National Institute of Justice 0604.01 standard chemical reagents uphold in courts for probable cause.

In the past, when using legacy tests, officers in the field had to decide whether the color of the test solution matched the one the substance was being tested for, and it’s every agency’s fear that the limitations of such drug screening tests could lead to lawsuits, or — even worse — a wrongful conviction. The problems of these presumptive tests can be overcome with the latest technological advancements in colorimetric tests, where the mobile app automates the color assessment process and removes the need for an officer to reference color charts and use their own subjective interpretation.

Understanding Core Applications

The training should detail the wide range of uses for field testing, including:

  • Crime scene investigation – gunshot residue, explosives, clan labs, etc.
  • Basic field drug testing – traffic stops, evidence testing, undercover work, etc.
  • Automobile drug interdiction – random inspections, swabbing hidden compartments, residue on steering wheels, including non-visible residue detection.
  • Interdiction in mailroom facilities – swabbing outside of packages for detection of fentanyl or other drugs.
  • Cargo and freight inspection at ports of entry – sampling for drug residue on incoming shipments.
  • Swabbing persons of interest for evidence of contact with drugs such as fentanyl – swab hands, luggage, clothing, etc.
  • Swab testing of officers after potential fentanyl exposure to ensure non-visible residue is still not present on clothing, PPE, etc.

How to Properly Use Field Test Kits

Your vendor should review, explain, and demo each step of the test process, spending time discussing each particular test your team can expect to use. This typically involves:

  • Sampling residue of suspected substance with included removable swab
  • Inserting sampled swab in detection pouch
  • Breaking ampules inside the pouch
  • Noting color reaction and reference color legend on pouch
  • Scanning pouch using app installed on smartphone via camera (or embedded in handheld mobile testing device)
  • Automated results captured by app
  • Gathering of additional information (photos, location, etc.)
  • Creation and delivery of PDF reports

Best Practice Sampling Methods

The training facilitator should carefully review how best to minimize the chances of exposure when capturing samples. Examples of methodologies include:

  • Single wrapped corner bags: Swab excess of tied knot for best chance of detecting residue. Alternatively, swab the exterior of bag. Exterior residue is generally within detection capabilities.
  • Folded wax paper: Insert swab within folds of wax paper to maximize likelihood of residue detection.
  • Pills: If the pill does not have a coating, direct swab. If coated, scratch before swabbing.
  • Liquids: (e.g. liquid meth) Remove lid and swab either inside of cap or inside of container above the liquid. Testers can also insert swab directly into liquid, or use a pipette and put a drop of liquid on the swab pad.
  • Syringes and cook spoons: Swab needle, spoon, and/or injection site on user.
  • Small plastic bags: Swab inside fold along zipper for residue, or insert swab through small section along internal seal. This is also common for “trash pulls” or testing empty bags.
  • Suboxone or synthetics dried into mail: The key in these instances is the use of moisture to pick up residue. Method 1) Wet a piece of Suboxone or suspected mail and then swab wet area; Method 2) Tear a piece of mail or Suboxone and drop into vial with water and swab after approximately one minute; Method 3) If the piece is small, swab directly into test pouch.
  • Kilo packages: Use pin method. Place kilo on flat surface, puncture kilo with pin/knife/etc. down to drug material, swab pin/knife tip to detect drug residue from interior. This allows for minimal exposure to sample for well-packaged kilos with no exterior residue.

About the Author
This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is the Director of Market Development for United States-based DetectaChem, a manufacturer of handheld drug and explosive detection technology. Greg has over 12 years as a specialized safety and security industry professional with expertise in product marketing, product development, go-to-market strategy, new business development, sales planning and channel management.

This article appeared in the January-February 2020 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that issue here.

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