Mission Control' Model Taking Hold

Rapid deployment hazardous environment detection is widely used in North America's hazmat community and in many other settings, as well.

ON January 6, 2005, a 42-car train traveling at approximately 40 mph through Graniteville, S.C., crashed into a parked locomotive. A number of the cars contained hazardous chemicals: resins, kaolin, and sodium hydroxide. Three cars were 90-ton tankers, each carrying full loads of chlorine. Only one cracked, almost immediately releasing 80 tons of chlorine gas. More than 600 casualties and nine fatalities were reported during the immediate aftermath and during the 10 days of cleanup. The cost of the incident is still open to debate.

Although Graniteville represented the largest chemical release in the United States in 27 years (Carolina Fire Rescue EMS Journal, Fall 2005), it was just one example of situations where first responders used a rapidly deployable, wireless hazardous materials detection system to protect life and property. Rapidly deployable wireless gas detectors formed a perimeter around the incident that remained in place well beyond the week required to contain and remediate the release. Monitored from a central command center, the monitoring system allowed first responders to focus on the critical tasks of saving lives without the need to monitor each instrument locally.

Moving Away from 'One Man, One Meter'
The convergence of three technologies--gas and radiation detection, wireless communications, and powerful computers--has fostered the creation of an entirely new tool for first responders: the rapid deployment hazardous environment detection system. The ability of first responders to deploy gas and radiation detectors to monitor the environment has always been critical in hazmat response. The ability to integrate these detectors, using wireless communications, into a centrally controlled system now allows first responders to be more effective than ever in dealing with threats. These systems give first responders and others the ability to move gas and radiation detection from a "one man, one meter" model to a "mission control" model.

Developed in partnership with some of the leading first responder organizations, wireless hazardous detection systems have been widely adopted by the first responder community. They are used every day to respond to emergencies and provide reliable, real-time, on-scene data. They monitor refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial facilities and are used in ad hoc hazard situations, such as air monitoring of public venues during major events.

The difference between attack and accident is one of intent. To the first responder, the task remains the same. Wireless hazardous environment detection systems have been deployed by first responders, law enforcement, government agencies, and commercial users to protect the public at numerous incidents and major events. For example:

* Delivering rapidly deployable monitoring of a spill or accident while allowing personnel and the incident command center to remain at a safe distance and assess the need for personal protective equipment.
* Delineating a safe operating zone, inside which PPE should be worn while the release is being cleaned up.
* Modeling and predicting a vapor plume in the broader region so evacuations can be coordinated and minimized to only the necessary zones.

Facility and Venue Protection
In addition to responding to hazmat incidents, there is an increasing security focus on high-profile public buildings and special-venue protection. Wireless hazardous environment detection platforms combining chemical and radiation detection capabilities are ideally suited for rapid, scalable, and highly adaptable deployment at a wide variety of locations that require additional security against terrorist threats or industrial accidents.

Wireless systems have been used to protect more than 100 major public events, such as the Major League Baseball World Series and All-Star games, pro football Super Bowls, the Olympic Games, presidential inaugurations, and many more. Air monitoring using multiple wireless monitors at these events can alert first responders to dangers and help them make evacuation or shelter decisions. For example, having monitors both inside and outside a building help to determine which area is safer and can prevent an evacuation decision that moves people to a more dangerous area.

Essential Elements of a Rapid Deployment System
Rapid deployment wireless systems have been in service with first responders for only three years. Since the development and deployment of these solutions, we have learned the essential system elements needed for effective response to both intended and accidental hazardous incidents. Among these essential elements are:

* A complete line of field-proven products
* Rapid system deployment capability
* Ease of use
* Flexible configuration with an open instrument platform
* Integrated weather information and plume measurement
* Data portability

Let's look at each of these critical elements in more detail.

Field-Proven Products
The system should offer rugged, weather-resistant wireless gas and radiation monitors that can measure oxygen, combustibles, toxic industrial chemicals, gases, and gamma radiation. The monitors must be able to support GPS mapping and capability. They must have photoionization detectors (PID) to give early warning for a variety of volatile organic chemicals that might be of concern, such as gasoline, pepper spray, and some chemical warfare agents. The PID also provides early indication of possible flammable compounds. A lower explosive limit (LEL) sensor is useful for detecting most combustible gases, such as hydrogen, propane, and methane. Many people consider the oxygen sensor the ultimate broadband detector. As little as a 1 percent deficiency in atmospheric oxygen levels can be life-threatening, and an oxygen-rich environment increases the risk of explosion or fire. Further, a 0.1 percent decrease in oxygen concentration can indicate the potential presence of 5,000 parts per million of something else being present. Toxic gas sensors must be available for such chemicals as ammonia, carbon monoxide, chlorine, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and phosphine. Finally, a gamma radiation sensor must be available to warn of the presence of any dangerous radioactive material.

These instruments must operate on a robust wireless network capable of supporting a large number of monitors over a wide area with a proven host controller. They must provide GPS information so their location is automatically identified on a map at the base station or command center. Additionally, the system must be an open platform that allows the integration of best-of-breed, third-party sensor solutions such as weather stations, chemical warfare agent detectors, and other applications.

It is important, however, to avoid being too integrated. For example, some sensors for chemical warfare agents are very sensitive, expensive, and specialized in their application. Continually exposing them to toxic industrial chemicals can cause them to loose sensitivity and potentially fail when needed. Most standard operating procedures call for the use of broadband sensors to identify the existence of a threat before deploying specific sensors and identifiers.

Rapid System Deployment
Systems must be specifically designed for rapid deployment in temporary monitoring applications lasting a few hours, a few days, or even weeks. Considering that hazmat units arrive on scene after the event, it is critical the wireless system be deployed and in service in less than five minutes. This rapid deployment is enabled through the integration of:

* Multiple sensors and the data radio or wireless modem in a single unit.
* Fast start-up of the wireless monitors.
* Automatic host controller set-up and network activation without the need for on-site software set-up.
* A robust wireless communications architecture. Highly specific communication means the system operates immediately. Modern wireless protocols rarely require the user to locate and remove radio interference. Communications are secure and resistant to interference and jamming, and they deliver a 2-mile operational range.

Experienced wireless hazardous environment detection system vendors provide rapid deployment kits that are designed for quick assessment and management of hazardous environments. These kits should include wireless monitors with in-case charging, as well as the host controller for incident monitoring from a command center up to 2 miles away from the hazardous environment. These systems must scale up to 32 monitors to allow multiple agencies to combine resources. All of these components must be transportable in rugged carrying cases.

Ease of Use
Above all, a rapid deployment system must be easy to use. Despite its wide-ranging capabilities, all of its operations should be controlled through icon-driven software on a single laptop personal computer.

Flexible Configuration and an Open Platform
Because a rapid deployment system is designed to be quickly deployed in any response scenario, it must be able to accommodate a wide range of detection equipment. The system should be able to support both the system vendor's equipment and third-party devices, all operating wirelessly and instantly providing data for incident commanders through a single user interface.

Integrated Weather Information and Plume Measurement
A fully integrated, wireless, portable weather station is another critical component of the system solution. The weather station must be able to be set up in seconds to provide on-site integrated weather information. An integrated weather station, real-time wireless gas monitoring, and GPS combine with mapping and computation algorithms to enable true plume measurement, as opposed to traditional plume modeling.

The key difference between plume modeling and plume measurement is the ability to "back-calculate" the chemical release rate based on measured weather and gas level information. Traditional modeling solutions such as ALOHA have required first responders to know the chemical release rate, something that is often difficult to estimate. A modern system asks the first responder for only the time and location of the release and the chemical that is released. It uses the weather and gas detection information to calculate and display concentrations, the extent of the plume, indoor infiltration, and other key decision-making information.

In action, several wireless gas monitors are deployed around a large area and their readings are monitored from a central location. A wireless, portable weather station is deployed to provide real-time weather information. The data from the gas monitors and the weather station are linked to the plume measurement system operating in the base station PC. The plume measurement system uses this information to measure the plume concentration information and then displays it on a scalable map. This aids in shelter-in-place and evacuation decisions.

Data Portability: A Powerful New Approach
Fixed sensing networks often have provided data portability, but portable, ad hoc networks have never before been able to have their data displayed remotely. With the rapid deployment hazardous environment detection system, measurements from multiple sensors are transmitted by a wireless network to one location where they can not only be viewed on one computer, but also transmitted to other locations worldwide, via the Internet, for simultaneous viewing. This provides enhanced safety for the responders, who can set sensors in place and move to a safer location, plus, it allows experts at multiple remote locations to assist in monitoring and decision-making.

Data portability provides instantaneous situational awareness in an Incident Command (IC) center. It also facilitates sensor "fusion" by providing the ability to employ multiple sensors to deliver a broad range of protection. By having all sensor data in one place, the incident commander can alert downrange personnel to hazardous environments while the downrange personnel remain mission-focused on their operational tasks. In addition, data can be stored for later review and for future training purposes.

Modern rapid deployment systems leverage the power of the Internet to aggregate multiple wireless networks, allowing access to critical information in real time from any location in the world. Because the data are truly portable, multiple viewers can simultaneously see and share current as well as historical data via a standard Web browser on any computer.

The transition from "one man, one meter" to "mission control" is well under way. Modern rapid deployment hazardous environment detection systems have been in use for a number of years and have become widely accepted in the hazmat community in North America. Their proven performance in incident after incident has established their place in the first responder's "toolbox."

They have moved beyond the first responder application and into refineries and industrial plants, and they are currently used to protect people at many public venues. They have successfully changed the way in which we respond to many emergencies and will continue to change response procedures in the future.

This article appeared in the January 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.


This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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