Article Archive
Focus on Hazmat
Science fiction comes to pass
Volume 23. No 4

Those of us “of a certain age” can remember the science fiction of a bygone era, such things as Buck Rogers’ rocket ship, Dick Tracy’s “two-way wrist radio” (and later his wrist TV), two-way radios between private automobiles, supersonic aircraft and a host of other items that were, in our youth, the stuff of comic strips and science fiction pulps. Today, these things and more have become reality. Thanks to the arrival of the “electronic age” and especially the advent of that device we know as “the computer.” The computer did not burst full blown upon society. It, like everything else, has an evolutionary history. It began with the “calculator,” a mechanical marvel that would sit on the desk and go “ka-chunk, ka-chunk,” grinding out answers to arithmetic problems with the blinding speed of a southern funeral on a mud road. In their day, we thought that these were really “up town.”

Then came the vacuum tube era and giant “electric brains,”some of which filled entire floors and in a few cases entire buildings. These required a crew of operators just to replace the failing vacuum tubes. Things went rapidly down hill from there, both with regard to price and to size, until the present when almost everyone has at least calculator and most of us have several including some that we don’t even know about. They are in our cars, our air conditioning systems and our cameras. They regulate our speed, our temperature and the quality of the picture that we send to Aunt Martha. We depend on these devices daily and sometimes it seems like they are as much “in charge” as we are. I am still in awe when some of my “computer geek” friends tell me that the computer on which this is being written has more “power” than the one that got man to the moon. That one took up a whole floor in a very large building.

The age of the computer has been a great boon to research, finance and medicine. It has also been of immeasurable help to those of us engaged in emergency response. The electronic age did not burst full-blown and instantaneously upon the emergency response world but gradually like the sunrise at the start of a new day, and the term “dawn” applied to this advent was not inappropriate. In fact it was so gradual that most of us do not realize its extent until we pause to look back at what was the “norm” just a few years ago and then what we see is  astounding.    

The ordinary computer is a case in point. When dealing with electronic devices, such as computers, it is necessary that we understand exactly what these contraptions do. Basically they are extremely stupid. They can add one and one but that is about all. Their advantage is that they can do it with exceeding rapidity. Some of the latest ones can actually turn out billions of computations per second.

Persons seeing one of these machines operate are often amazed at what they appear to do; they fail to understand that the basis for the amazing display lies, not in the machine, but in the program and in the data storage files. Computers are like an office filing cabinet. They are empty when they are purchased and will remain so until an operator puts something in them.

When the Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations (CAMEO) program was first introduced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the demonstrations and training materials were based on the Seattle area where the program originated. This area could arguably have been called the most thoroughly mapped area in the United States at the time. The demos were awe inspiring.  However prospective users of CAMEO failed to realize what made these demos so breathtaking was the hours of human effort that had been spent in loading all the maps, tier one and two declarations and countless other items that went into the data bank. When they got home and tried to set up their own copy of CAMEO, they found that it had no information regarding their local community and it would not have such until this material was collected and somebody sat down and loaded it into the machine. The advent of the “Tiger” maps has made some parts of this task much easier, but much of it still demands a tremendous amount of manual data entry. Great care must be taken in determining what should go into a local database. Remember “if you don’t put it in, you can’t get it out.”

Not only should great care be exercised in determining what goes into a database, but the format or how it is put in is also a very important factor. Most of the current emergency response programs store their data on what amounts to Excel pages. These pages are divided into fields which are given names by the operator. These might be such things as “name”, “address” “phone number” or “e-mail.”

Now let us look at the “address” field for example. If we name the field “address” and we enter “207 South Windy Street,” that is what the machine sees and all we can sort out is “207 South Windy Street.” If we have a family of five people living at 207 South Windy Street, all of them will be listed when we do a query. On the other hand, if we break the “address” category into three parts: “address,” “N/S” and “street name,” then we can sort out every address on Windy Street, every address on South Windy Street, or every address in the 200 block of South Windy street; or addresses within a range of say 200 to 225, a convenient feature for use in an evacuation situation. Likewise if we have a field called “name” and we enter Jim W. Smith, that is all we can get out. But if we set up three fields called, respectively “first name”, “MI” and “last name” then we can query and sort out by last name (all of the Smiths), first name (all of the Jims) or MI (all of the W’s). A “chain query” will produce John W. Smith if that is what we want. Like the collection plate in church, if you put more in, you can get more out and only what you put in can you get out. It is important to determine exactly what you intend to do with the information and some thought should be given to what you may want to do with it in the future.

Electronic devices have basically two functions — to store and retrieve data as with a computer and to monitor and respond to a set of conditions whether personnel conditions or the regulation of a piece of equipment. The newer foam metering devices offer an illustration. On an engine equipped with one of these gadgets, the engineer can enter the desired ratio of foam concentrate to water, “press enter” and let it go. Through sensors located in the pump discharge, the computer takes care of everything. If the water flow rate drops due to shutting down, a line to the pump controller reduces the amount of foam concentrate accordingly. If an additional line is opened, the amount of water flow increases and so does the amount of foam concentrate being added to the stream.

We have long known that personnel working in encapsulated suits are subjected to considerable physiological stress. We have monitored this by checking “vital signs” at each air bottle change and by having the subject drink fluids to maintain electrolytes and prevent dehydration. Emergency medical per-sonnel stand by with electrocardiograph and other medical equipment in case of need. Unfortunately these measures can only be initiated only after the responder develops symptoms or at set time intervals such as air bottle changes. Now electronic monitors have been developed that are small and robust enough to be worn on the person of the responder and alert command at the first indication of an abnormality, sometimes even before that subject himself is aware of the condition. This earlier intervention saves lives and reduces the damage caused by a medical incident. Other electronic devices sound an alert whenever the wearer is motionless for a certain pre-set length of time. Thus other responders are made aware that a colleague has been injured and/or rendered unconscious and can render him timely assistance, hopefully saving a life. 

Other protective personnel monitors can keep track of the atmospheric contamination. We all know the value of wearing respiratory protective equipment but practicality dictates that we wear only that which is actually necessary as indicated by the condition and composition of the atmosphere. The problem is that the composition of the atmosphere can change and change rapidly as the incident progresses. A personal air monitor can ensure that the responders are immediately aware of any such change in time to take appropriate action. A blood oxygen saturation meter, which can be bought very inexpensively at most stores selling sporting goods or physical fitness items, can warn of hyperventilation or oxygen deprivation within seconds — in time to be of value in assisting or treating the victim instead of the hours that the procedures for such testing required only a few years ago.

 Now this brings up the second characteristic of computers and other electronic devices. They do not generate knowledge, they just make accessing information easier to accomplish. We have always needed to proportion foam, and we did so by means of a number of different mechanical devices. All the “black box” did was to make the task easier and perhaps do it more precisely. We have always wanted to know the physical condition of encapsulated responders; we just lacked a practical means of acquiring it. Now electronic technology has made this possible. We needed the capability of identifying flammable atmospheres, and a”black box” replaced the cumbersome and somewhat more hazardous Davy safety lamp. Portable gas chromatographs have made it possible to conduct field analysis at the scene of an incident to verify the contents of a leaking container. Cellular telephones with built in cameras (remember Dick Tracy’s “two-way wrist TV) make it possible for a responder to send a picture of what he is confronted with back to a laptop computer in the command post for viewing by the command staff in real time, and receive instructions for mitigating measures without having to exit the hot zone.

Then there is the Internet, a product of the computer age. One only has to browse a few of the government sites such as FEMA, NFA, NIH, OSHA, CDC and MSHA, to name but a few, to find a plethora of programs related to whatever branch of emergency response. The 2004 Emer-gency Response Guidebook as well as the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards are available online, and unlike the printed volumes, these sites are searchable. Most of these are free for the downloading. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) has initiated a program which enables a responder to enter a rail car number and immediately determine the shipper, the car’s lading and its destination. A similar program for motor truck trailers is proposed but is not yet operational. The Chemical Transportation Emergency Center (CHEMTREC), the National Response Center (NRC), as well as a number of similar services are all available online and by cellular telephone. They can be accessed by anyone with access to a laptop computer and a phone line, a wireless Internet card or a cellular telephone with a computer connection port. As access to the Internet and cellular telephone coverage spreads, a larger portion of the country can now communicate with the rest of the world. Of course there are still “blind” spots, but regular radio or landline communication can still be employed to relay essential information.   

Radios, which only a few years back filled the entire trunk of a command car and drew almost as much current as the starter, will now fit into a coat pocket and provide more range and power than the old vacuum tube sets ever did. Thanks to transistors and modern printed circuit techno-logy, these are far less expensive than the old vacuum tube sets; they are much more reliable and can run for days on a single battery charge. Where the old radios had only a few channels, present day ones can be programmed to access as many as twenty channels, thus making interoperability a much more attainable objective, especially when units from different jurisdictions and the private sector must work together.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) utilizing a constellation of at least 24 medium Earth orbit satellites that transmit precise microwave signals enables a GPS receiver to pinpoint its location within a few yards (in some cases a few feet) on the earth’s surface. The data can be superimposed on an aerial photograph to provide a map-like readout showing the location and the route to follow to reach any given location. Some of these receivers can also send out a signal that will assist in locating lost or missing persons or equipment.

In retrospect, the extent to which the electronic age has permeated the emergency response community is amazing but even more so is the realization that all of the innovations just mentioned have materialized within the span of the working life of many of the responders still active today, and some of us can still recall the “good old days” before the electronic invasion. This is indeed phenomenal; it is doubtful that any other group of people have seen the intro-duction of quite so much innovative technology as within the last 20 to 30 years, and what the future holds is limited only by one’s imagination.

Still, we are usually blissfully unaware of the role that electronic devices play in our daily lives, personal and professional, until, for some reason, they fail to function. If you doubt this, just get caught in the supermarket during a power outage. The whole place comes to a screeching halt. One cannot pay for his or her purchase, the doors won’t open and often it is so dark that one cannot find the exit. The bottom line, then, is that wonderful as electronic devices are, they are human contrivances and as such they are subject to failure. Therefore it is still prudent practice to indulge in some prior planning (remember P5) and have a “plan B” available for any unforeseen contingency. This means a plan that can actually be put into action, not one that has been left on the shelf until mildew has set in, leaving no one with any knowledge of the protocol for its implementation.



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