Suspect substance? New hazmat device can solve mystery
By Matthew Bowers
When you don't know what you've got — harmless powder? deadly anthrax spores? — you don't want to pick it up, no matter how many gloves you're wearing, or cart it to a lab, no matter how careful a driver you are.
You instead want something like the bright yellow StreetLab Mobile. It looks a lot like a cordless drill that has been lifting weights, but it's a laser tool that emergency workers can place on or near a suspicious substance and get an on-the-spot chemical analysis of what they're facing .
And the Southside Regional Hazardous Materials Response Team — composed of fire-department specialists from Portsmouth, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake — is the first in the country to get one.
"This we can take to the product," said Capt. Larry Regula of Portsmouth Fire , Rescue and Emergency Services.
At a training session this month in a classroom at Fire-Rescue Station 4, a firefighter set the business end of the analyzer on a clear, plastic packet containing a white powder. An instructor from GE Security, which manufactures the device, led the dozen class members through a standard checklist, such as checking for an identifying label or determining whether the material dissolves in water.
The device works on solids, powders or liquids. Buttons are oversized so firefighters can manipulate them even in bulky protective garments.
Information can be sent wirelessly to a computer at a nearby command post. The device can be operated remotely or set on delay, so firefighters can leave for safety. If taken into a contaminated "hot zone," it can be cleaned.
Faster analysis also helps minimize disruptions, such as when a public building might be closed , said Capt. Paul Hoyle, Portsmouth Fire-Rescue spokesman.
The analyzer costs $35,000, but GE Security offered a discount and hopes to obtain constructive feedback, fire and GE officials said. A homeland-security grant paid for it, fire officials said.
"Now, we're basically going to try and break it," Hoyle said. "Learn to use it and break it."
GE offered it to South Hampton Roads largely because of its ports and military bases, said Rich Rendon, a national security specialist with GE Security, and because he knew people here. He's a 30-year Coast Guard veteran who served six years in Norfolk and Portsmouth .
"They have a busy station, and a very high-risk AOR - area of responsibility - ... and they need to be prepared," Rendon said.
The regional haz mat team can expect to get called out three to four times a year and more often after high-profile scares elsewhere, such as the anthrax concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks. "It always depends on what's happening in the world," Hoyle said.
And that powder in class? A sugar substitute. Although earlier, the class also tested cocaine, heroin and other drugs brought in by police, illustrating another potential use of the device.
Virginia Beach representatives from an earlier training session received a real-life example of the potential usefulness of the new device. They got called out of class to the Christian Broadcasting Network, where a building was shut down much of a day because of a suspicious white powder that turned out to be harmless whey protein, a bodybuilding supplement.
It took state Virginia State Police running a sample to a lab in Richmond to determine that.
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