DHS Program Tests Tools that Determine On-Site Chemical Substances
Wednesday, October 09, 2019 | Comments

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) tested equipment that first responders use to determine the chemical substances on site at a disaster.

The System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders (SAVER) program, managed by S&T’s National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL), conducted assessments and validations of analytical field instruments such as gas chromatograph/mass spectrometers (GC/MS) for first responders.

“It is like a consumer report,” said John Kada, NUSTL test director for a recent GC/MS assessment. “Our report provides evidence how the instruments performed with respect to the evaluation criteria.”

In July, Kada oversaw the assessment of three portable field GC/MSs used for analyzing chemical samples. Results from the assessment will be published in a report, to provide practical information for emergency responder organizations seeking an instrument best suited to their needs.

S&T developed the recent GC/MS assessment in cooperation with the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). A focus group consisting of first responders met in February to decide on the evaluation criteria. Most of the focus group members returned to participate in the July assessment.

During field operations, first responders may encounter substances suspected to be narcotics, toxic industrial chemicals or chemical warfare agents. Responders specializing in hazardous materials use GC/MS equipment to identify these hazardous substances. The instruments also are used in environmental monitoring and cleanup to analyze environmental pollutants, in criminal forensics to link a criminal to a crime, in law enforcement to detect illegal narcotics, and in airport security to detect explosives.

“GC/MS is considered the gold standard of analytical methods,” said Kada. “With portable GC/MS instruments, first responders have laboratory capability right there in the field.”

GC/MSs are capable of measuring gases, volatile and semi-volatile liquids, vapors emitted by some solids and can also detect trace amounts of chemical compounds and identify them.

During the assessment, which took place at the Seattle Joint Training Facility in Washington, Kada and his team gathered relevant data from three different GC/MS models and received feedback from a group of seven first responder evaluators with different backgrounds, including firefighters, police and a member of a municipal department of health. A representative from each instrument manufacturer trained the evaluators and provided technical support during the event.

The evaluators rated the affordability, capability, usability, deployability and maintainability of each instrument according to their needs in the field. They also rated the clarity of the analysis reports those instruments generated.

The seven responder evaluators were divided into three groups. Each evaluator had experience operating field portable GC/MS or other chemical identification devices. The responders assessed the instruments by analyzing samples from common, non-toxic, consumer products, such as over-the counter medicines, cosmetics and foodstuffs.

“For safety reasons, we didn’t have the responders use any dangerous chemicals,” Kada said.

The assessment included 30 criteria and focused on testing the instruments’ general capabilities for analyzing different kinds of samples like solids, liquids, and gasses. Many questions were related to how effectively a responder can use that equipment.

NUSTL will publish the evaluators’ feedback and results collected during the operational assessment scenarios later this year.

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