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Police and Fire Will Share Handheld Hazmat Detector

Agilent’s Resolve Raman uses laser technology to see through containers and identify hazardous and non-hazardous materials in seconds, providing fast resolution to hazmat questions for Twin Falls, Idaho, first responders.

by Jim McKay / June 27, 2019
The Agilent Resolve Raman can identify a multitude substances and chemicals.

In February of this year, the office of U. S. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho was out of commission for about eight hours while first responders tried to determine if a white substance found in a letter was harmful.

Twin Falls, Idaho first responders are hoping to eliminate that kind of wait with a new device that identifies hazardous materials almost immediately. The Twin Falls fire and police departments will share an Agilent Resolve Raman, a handheld device that “enables rapid detection and identification” of substances, including narcotics, explosives and hazardous matter, according to an email by an Agilent spokesperson.

The device uses laser technology to detect these materials though sealed opaque containers, including sealed nonmetallic containers, barriers and packages. This allows first responders to identify a substance without having to open the container.

The device contains a comprehensive library of hazardous materials and substances for identifying a substance. That library can grow as needed.

It is expected that the device will be housed with the fire department and shared regionally, according to Fire Battalion Chief Mitchell Brooks. “We’re sharing it with them,” he said. “Obviously our hazmat team will benefit from it. We’re trying to bridge the gap between our neighboring regional response teams and our local hazmat and bomb squad.”

The technology was developed by Cobalt Light Systems before it was absorbed by Agilent Technologies. Eric Roy, now at Agilent, helped develop the technology at Cobalt Light Systems.

“It uses technology called Raman spectroscopy,” Roy said. “And the way it works is you basically shine a laser on your sample and the signal that comes back from your sample, we describe as a chemical fingerprint and just like police do with fingerprint analysis, we search that fingerprint of your sample in a database of known chemicals.”

The technology will search the database of hundreds of chemicals and identify the substance, or substances, even if it’s an inert substance, such as sugar. The device is a “purpose-built tool” focused on first responders and the military so the chemicals are those that would be encountered by the first responders or military personnel, as well as household chemicals.

It can detect substances through gas cans, five-gallon pickle buckets, polyethylene drums, the things that first responders are likely to encounter in the field, Roy said.

“It was a giant engineering challenge,” Roy said. “The Raman spectroscopy that I did my Ph.D. on is the size of a small automobile and we were able to shrink that type of technology down to something a first responder could essentially walk into the hot zone with, so there’s a ton of engineering that’s gone into it.”

Brooks said a regional response team used to serve the Twin Falls area but went away with a lack of funding. This new device will be purchased with combined grant funding from the Idaho Office of Emergency Management, and the Twin Falls Bomb Squad with the fire department covering the rest. The total cost will be around $65,000.

“Basically, it will take an unknown substance — solid or liquid, it won’t do gas — and give us a very good idea of what that substance is,” Brooks said. “Right now, we don’t have the ability to do that accurately, so that prolongs the event and ties up resources. We end up getting resources brought in from the state and it ties them up. It would be at least a two-hour response time to get something here.”

The device first identifies the container, then what’s inside of it. Many times, the substance ends up being a non-hazardous material, but first responders must take every precautionary measure and make sure.

“So without even touching the container, we’ll be able to go up to that container with this device and typically within a minute, it will tell us what’s in it,” Brooks said. “It benefits us in a number of ways. We don’t have to disturb the product and we don’t have to put responders in danger by handling the product.”

The device comes in a kit with all the necessary accessories and requires the first responder to come relatively close to the material to get a reading. “You have to be almost touching it, which is a risk,” Brooks said. “But we’ll put on the protective clothing that we need. It will give us a fairly definitive answer, and if it doesn’t, the company said they are able to analyze the substance and add it to the library.”

He said the key to the device is it will give responders and command staff the data they need to make quicker, more informed decisions. “Most of the time, we spend so much effort figuring out what the product is, we treat it as an unknown and take as many precautions as we need. Now we are able to get in there and make better decisions.”

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