Detecting Unseen Threats in First Response

The changing role of the firefighter is complemented by the expanding range of portable detection instrumentation and technology.

First responders in any scenario are dealing with a variety of unseen threats. Chemicals, vapors, gases and radiation all are unseen threats that can injure or kill first responders as well as others who might be at or near the incident site. Atmospheres can be flammable, toxic, corrosive and asphyxiating, and first responders must have the appropriate technology to detect and protect themselves as well as the workers or community that surrounds the response scene.

Key to dealing with unseen threats is the need for information. The complexity of response means that incident commanders must have more data, better data and faster data in order to protect first responders. This information must be available for both small incidents as well as in the chaos surrounding a large-scale response. This data must be interoperable, with a variety of sensors and networks for an integrated view of the situation. Data must be transportable if outside experts are required in the development of a response plan.

Technologies Available to Firefighters


Hand-held decision-support tools – Rugged, hand-held databases running on PDAs (personal digital assistants) or personal computers are enabling first responders to assess and react to unknown threats. Hazardous materials decision-support applications on hand-held, wireless devices now exist for chemical, radiological, biological and weapons of mass destruction assessments.


These databases contain tens of thousands of chemical, biological warfare and bioterror agents; radioactive isotopes; trade names; and improvised explosive devices. Materials can be retrieved using traditional search identifiers such as name or UN number, but when no standard identifiers are present or known, these databases are able to identify unknown chemicals using observable physical characteristics and signs and symptoms observed in victims.


Radiation monitors – Sensitive personal radiation monitors are being used to alert first responders to the presence of a radiation threat well before responders might be exposed to health-threatening levels. First responders find that they now need two tools: a detector for awareness to a threat as well as a dosimeter to be able to track radiation exposure and limit it to non-damaging levels. A dosimeter is similar to the odometer in a car – it tracks total exposure – while a detector is like a speedometer in that it displays the current exposure intensity level.

When a large number of first responders are outfitted with radiation detectors, they can establish a “moving curtain” of radiation protection. Because first responders are equipped with monitors, they also are aware of their own exposure and their need to follow decontamination procedures so as not to become dangerous radiation sources themselves. Today, first responders can carry an intrinsically safe combination gamma radiation detector/dosimeter.

Information integration from hand-held monitors to wireless point-to-point networks – The single-most critical technology issue in incident responses is the ability to share and coordinate information. Platforms now exist that use long-range wireless communications to integrate gas, radiation, weather, toxic chemical warfare agent and personnel monitors into an existing sensing network. In addition, these incident command data systems can be integrated with sophisticated plume measurement and tracking software so responders always can know where the hot zone is and be prepared with the proper personal protective gear.

Multi-gas monitors – Hand-held, wireless and rapidly deployed area monitors can be networked, giving first responders the capability to simultaneously read and display combustible gas levels, oxygen and two toxic gases. These monitors can incorporate a photoionization detector (PID) for detecting toxic levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for the most complete protection in hazardous environments.
As first responders augment the traditional “one person/one monitor” model with an enhanced situational awareness model, the integration of multiple data streams enables local incident commanders as well as remote planners and experts to make informed, life-saving decisions involving toxic gases and toxic industrial chemicals and stressed responders.

Monitoring Responders

Finally, the sensors exist not only to monitor the situational environment but also the state of the first responders. Today, first responders can be equipped with a sensor pack that is data-compatible with the same network as the atmospheric or radiation sensors. Utilizing this technology, the tactical incident commander can see the vital signs for up to 32 responders who have individually tailored alarm points. With this technology, the incident commander may well-know that a responder is in distress before the responder knows.

The dangers faced by first responders will continue to change, and the complexities of response will continue to increase. The role of both hand-held and wireless networked sensing technologies will play an ever-increasing role in keeping first responders safe and enabling incident commanders to make the fastest and most thoughtful decisions.

Data is the driving force in response to a time and life-critical incident. Having multiple layers of sensors now provides incident commanders with new tools they can use to deal with unseen threats. With more integrated data, critical decisions can be made faster, mitigating the loss of life and lessening the economic damage caused by industrial accidents or terrorist events.

Bob Durstenfeld has spent the last 4 years as RAE Systems’ director of corporate marketing and investor relations. Before joining RAE Systems, Durstenfeld served as senior account manager and staff technologist for the Silicon Valley office of Fleishman-Hillard Public Relations. Bob also has held management positions at Agilent Technologies and Hewlett-Packard Co. He has published articles on Port Security, Wireless Gas Detection, Semiconductor Testing and Automation Technology. Durstenfeld received his Masters in Engineering Management and International Marketing from Santa Clara University and his BS in Engineering and Biology from UCLA.

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