Expanded Roles

Today's devices are far more capable than in the past, aiding responders who have much broader roles since 9/11.

Editor's note: Rapid innovation in user-friendly radiation detection devices is helping emergency responders and civilian users alike, says Thea Philliou, a first responder applications specialist for Thermo Electron's Security group. Products are increasingly smarter, stronger, and smaller in response to users' needs, she explained in a March 1, 2005, conversation with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

These products help first responders, and also people doing routine monitoring, detect radiation?

Thea Philliou: We deal with both civilian and military responders. You could break it down into two basic applications. The first would be more of a tactical operation--basically, some type of response to an event which has already occurred. The second application is more of an intelligence gathering/routine monitoring, where people are basically looking to prevent some type of accident or some type of crime. They're looking to catch something before it becomes an incident.

These would be hazmat teams, fire department hazmat teams, as a rule? Who's the primary audience?

Philliou: We really run the full gamut, depending on each city and agency and how it's structured. We deal with hazmat teams, whether that be police and/or fire, depending on how the municipality is structured. We've got pretty equal numbers of both sets of customers . . . as well as civil defense teams and special operations teams, too, that have more, let's say, mission-specific applications.

Are these mission-specific applications coming about as a result of 9/11? Did fire and hazmat teams even have to concern themselves with radiation monitoring before then?

Philliou: In most cities and towns up until recently, radiation has pretty much primarily fallen under hazmat, which in most cases falls under the realm of fire department response. . . . Fire departments in a lot of cases, historically, have sort of picked up everything except drugs--basically toxic substances of all sorts that were involved in any type of spill or accident.

What's happened more since 9/11 is, police and police hazmat departments have become involved in a much different way. Because with a lot of these incidents, it's not clear at the incident if there is a law enforcement issue--whether it is a routine industrial accident or if in fact they need to rule out any possible terrorist or hostile acts.

Historically, though, fire departments probably since about the time of the Cuban missile crisis have had radiation detection equipment on all the trucks. Very antiquated equipment, which probably up until 9/11 hadn't been under a big push to replace and modernize, had been part of very early civil defense . . . . A lot of that equipment hadn't been too thoughtfully updated until the past several years.

And that has happened by now?

Philliou: I'm not sure how many of those earlier models are still around. I know we still see a lot of them when we go out and visit customers. There's a lot of this earlier technology out there. A lot of the grants in the past several years that have been going on [addressed this]. It started with the larger cities, the major metropolitan areas that are considered more under threat or a target.

There's still a good number of more simple devices out there, but from what I've seen there's been a huge push to raise the bottom line. Even the smallest towns and the humblest fire departments--volunteer fire departments included--there really is a big effort to get them on board with more standardized equipment or at least more up-to-date equipment, so that if an incident does show up and there is an interagency response, everyone who shows up at the scene is at least speaking the same language and able to converse with compatible equipment types.

That's very interesting. I wouldn't have guessed it got down to the volunteer department level. That's pretty much nationwide.

Philliou: I'm always amazed at the grants and the phone calls I get from small towns and these volunteer fire departments. It's a trickle-down effect. Sometimes they might get a few thousand dollars here or there, but with the push toward training and to get all levels of townships and response teams on board with training, at least there's a lot of crosstalk and sharing of information.

Maybe they can't afford an entire suite of products that a larger metropolitan area could, but there's definitely a lot of training going on down at the ground level. They're aware of what the larger counties and cities have and are trying to work in a much more interoperable and compatible way with those larger areas.

How are today's monitoring products an advancement over what used to be used? How much better are they?

Philliou: They're ruggedized for the particulars of the application, meaning they'll be put in the hands of the fire or police officer who maybe has a Level A suit on with a heavy glove. So, number one, they're easy to operate with large gloves and heavy equipment on. They have easy-to-see LED screens, as opposed to watching dials go back and forth quickly during varying fields.

Just the ergonomics are one factor that's changed dramatically. . . . These days, they've got 70 pounds of gear strapped to them and things dangling from arms and legs; ergonomics has become a real important issue. If you're wearing a big mask and you only have one chance to see the display screen, we need to make sure you can see the display screen and you can turn alarms on and off easily with heavy gear already on both arms.

The advent of the digital meter is another huge step forward. Previously, with analog technology, you had people out in the field having to respond in real time to an incident, looking at an analog meter, having to use scaling factors and multiply a number they see on the dial by 10 or 100 or 1,000 and make sure that number is correct, in the process of going through the response. With a digital meter, what you see is what you're looking at for a reading. It takes a lot of the human error and the questioning, just the added stress of being in the response situation, out of the whole response scenario.

Part of what I think has given digital meters a great advantage--and has done a great service to the response community--is that with a digital meter with a PC-based, computerized software program you can use for setup, you have a huge range of flexibility. An administrator can go in and customize that device to the particular needs of his or her team.

With the variety of equipment these days that responders have, things have to be sophisticated but also very user friendly. Even if they don't have a radiation incident weekly and they're not pulling those instruments off the truck, they're doing regular training. These days, as opposed to 40 years ago, the volume of equipment and different technologies that the average responder is responsible for learning, training on, and knowing how to use when they pull it off the truck has just increased exponentially.

To the point where, about a year ago, they were hardly thinking they would going to be able to keep up with the flux of technology. Technology was changing so quickly. Firemen will say they used to be people responsible for putting water on fires, and these days they're running complete chemistry labs and biological detection/sampling equipment from a hazmat incident. Anything that makes it easier for them and reduces the stress of having so many technologies that they have to master at once is a major factor in their response.

I can believe it. It seems they also need a lot more coordination and ongoing contact with manufacturers like you.

Philliou: Right. I think, although it may not be written into grants in such a formal way, at this point there's much more of an expectation that anyone who does business in the responder world really is not as much doing business in the market as partnering with the market. From our side, we've had fabulous benefits internally from the customer base we've been fortunate enough to have contact with. We have such a well-versed and highly trained group of customers that they will actually come to us a lot of times with products, with new applications, suggestions for applications, and features that they demand from their day-to-day use. Really there'd be no way for R&D scientists in laboratories to be able to have that kind of a handle on what the specific needs of the customers are.

From their standpoint, they really expect you to be partnered with them. If they're buying equipment from a vendor, they want to know that's a relationship that will be building over time--that the vendor is going to have a complete support structure in place ready to help them, not just in 9-to-5 situations but with special events, when things happen and things go wrong. They know that they don't work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, and they really expect all their industry partners to meet them on the same terms.

You said the fire service was worried about being overwhelmed by the pace of technology. It appears the fire service has driven the pace, too. Have they driven the quick change in products, the advancements that have been made?

Philliou: The responder field in general, I think, has just been driven by need, between the escalating levels of threats that come in daily, varying depending on the time of year and world circumstances. The need has been out there. They're doing their best to stay ahead of the curve.

It's taking a tremendous amount of resources for their teams in general just to deal with equipment they have, let alone be learning new technologies.

When you were discussing the various ways today's devices are superior to the old ones, I don't know whether you mentioned this: Do they get faster results? Do they get readings they can use right away?

Philliou: They do. A lot of our equipment has what you can refer to as "hidden intelligence." On the outside, it's a ruggedized, relatively simple-looking box. But on the inside, processing has increased, again, exponentially. If you look at an analog meter from 40 years ago, you're hearing the old-fashioned Geiger counter clicking as it responds. Devices we have today are taking samples five times a second. Five times a second, they're doing a calculation to figure out what the background radiation is in the area where the responder is holding that meter in his or her hand.

At the same time, we have technologies that have developed. In our case, we have a particular software that had not found a place until the response market picked up on it for an application. The software will basically give you a go/no go kind of indicator. It's able to rapidly distinguish pretty much instantly between anything that's abnormal and doesn't belong in the environment, with just any natural changes in natural background radiation. Compared to old world devices, it's almost hard to speak of them side by side; it's like apples and oranges. So much of the intelligence is built into the insides of the instrument.

You mentioned that sometimes these are law enforcement scenes, sometimes they're not. Getting these kinds of results quickly will help them size up whether it's one or the other?

Philliou: The added pressure of having a law enforcement mission is a little bit different. With a digital meter, you have the ability to store results, some kind of evidentiary trail. Which, in the end, for industrial applications is also important. When you've got ports shut down, you've got areas of cities closed and businesses basically at a standstill, the risk management side of it is obviously very important. You do have the ability to log data, to send data out wirelessly. It has some kind of a time/date and location stamp.

Some of the devices that we're working on currently, which I think are pretty groundbreaking, give responders the ability to have a simple platform which is very universal and allows them to share data with a lot of the agencies that are now involved in any kind of response. We have a lot of products now which not only have integrated GPS, but they are integrated with GIS [geographic information system] software. They do have time/date/location stamps--so not only from the law enforcement standpoint, where you want to have an evidentiary trail, but from a risk management standpoint, from a health risk and health assessment standpoint, you have a very clear way to visualize and map and observe that data. Not only for a true multi-tiered response, but also in the future for mitigation and cleanup or just environmental protection.

I think in this case the response market is really driving a need, which in the greater picture for industrial hygiene as well as environmental protection is going to serve the community at large for years to come as the applications trickle down from the security market to more routine, day-to-day applications.

That's a good point. The improvement of products for incident response really helps the people who just need monitoring for their day-to-day operations.

Philliou: And you've got standard industrial hygiene applications. Just routine monitoring of not only radiation, but chemical, areas outside of airports, industrial factories, or nuclear power plant facilities where routine monitoring is important. And the more you can give them an effective platform to view the data, maybe to combine it with these dynamic maps as well as to combine it with software suites like GIS packages, better served it is. . . . About 85 percent of the world's military is using GIS and about 40 percent of businesses globally are using GIS software suites. People are definitely looking to find ways to not only manage and interpret their data, but also to share data.

In the response world, it's definitely a critical issue. The local team has to be able to save their data from an incident and share it with other agencies, like federal and state agencies that might show up at an incident, in a way that is quick and easy, and data doesn't get lost or corrupted. I think we are seeing the response community set the pace for day-to-day, civilian environmental protection and industrial hygiene.

The general way technology works is that as it improves and speeds up, it also gets cheaper. Are these products also getting less expensive?

Philliou: Oh, I think so. . . . Looking at the responder market a couple years ago: There were very significant pieces of equipment, laboratory technologies, which were just beginning to be brought out into the field for responder applications. Several vendors caught on at the same time. Over the past couple of years, so many new technologies have come on board that it really does cause a leveling in the price pretty quickly. . . . Definitely a lot of these more sophisticated features are being added in at costs which eventually are going to just become part of the basic instrument cost.

What do you see in the future for these products?

Philliou: As with anything else in technology, things are getting smarter, stronger, and smaller. We have increasing improvements. I know in some of our handheld devices, the electronics just continue to get smaller and smaller and be able to operate at wider ranges of detection capabilities, at much more rapid paces. In some of the devices, we have the ability to survey much larger areas either by ground or by air.

I think these devices will continue to be friendly and rugged in the hands of the users and to have that certain kind of hidden intelligence so they will be able to function remotely in areas where it might not be safe to have personnel located regularly. There will be ways to make sure the information from the field will be easily and securely driven up the chain of command.

We're publishing this a few months after the TOPOFF 3 exercise takes place. That's a DHS effort, as you know, pretty much mobilizing two entire states, with thousands of volunteers taking part in simulated exercises. Do you monitor that? Are these important to the way responders are preparing?

Philliou: Definitely. We have various product business partners and customers that are involved at various levels. We're constantly supporting them. Oftentimes for similar events, we get requests to bring new equipment we're working on, sort of real-life-scenario beta testing for it. We get a lot of really good feedback . . . it's been pushing us more towards creating platforms that are much more modular and flexible in the sense that they can really work in the hands of a variety of users.

This Q&A appeared in the August 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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