Article Archive
Focus on Hazmat
Need prompts dynamic process
Volume 25 Summer

Innovation is always the result of a dynamic process within the human mind; a natural phenomenon marked by gradual changes that lead toward a particular result. The ability to engage in this process is the primary entity that separates mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom. 

From time immemorial, humankind has engaged in innovation. Those milestones along the way that we choose to call discoveries or inventions — fire, the wheel, the lever etc. — are but intermittent stops along an indefinite journey into an indeterminate future that will continue so long as the evolving technology produced by the creative genius of mankind continues to conceive new technological needs.

The emergency response business is no stranger to innovation and it has contributed its share of the needs which have spawned the innovation that has characterized the fire service in general and the hazardous materials segment in particular.

From the time that some primordial caveman discovered that he could put out a run-away fire with a gourd full of water to the multi-thousand gpm super pumpers in service at the present time, the sequence of innovations extends in an unbroken line. This line has branched and re-branched as coal replaced wood as the common fuel, followed by gasoline, diesel, heating oil, natural gas, LPG and biofuels, all of which generated a need for innovative fire suppressant methodology.  These needs were at least in part met by the development of fire fighting foam.

The advent of the “golden age of chemistry” which appeared in the countries of Western Europe during the l9th century, creating a plethora of new chemicals. The petrochemical industry which followed it added additional entries to the menu. Not only did the petrochemical industry add to the variety of chemicals inserted into general commerce but the advent of the internal combustion engine with its veracious appetite for highly refined liquid fuels caused the advent of refining capacity of mega proportions. This, of course resulted in by-products being produced in equally great quantities. Compounds which had been merely laboratory curiosities existing only as minute quantities for which there was little, if any use by anybody. These by-products represented a loss of monetary value, a situation that is abhorrent to any entrepreneur. Again the innovative chemists sprang to the rescue and expensive compounds available in bottles suddenly became available in tank car quantities at prices that made the manufacture of the vast array of petrochemical-based products which we see and use every day as a “cost effective” option.

The great proliferation of both the variety and the quantity of chemical substances in general commerce created another technologically initiated need: a need for monitoring and detection. In short, now that we have created these materials, we must keep track of them. We need to know what is present in an atmosphere, where it is located and how much of it is present. The innovative efforts of scientists and engineers working in the free enterprise system rose to the occasion and began to meet this need.

The need for monitoring and detection technology is not something that burst upon the emergency response community with the advent of the petrochemical era; it has existed since man first began to dig fuels and minerals from the earth. Early Welch coal miners, having learned by experience the dangers of poison gasses and lack of oxygen in mine atmospheres carried live canaries into the mines. When the birds became sick, lethargic or stopped singing the miners knew that there was something wrong and that it was time to leave. They didn’t know what was poisoning the atmosphere, they didn’t know how much there was and they had no idea from whence it came but they knew enough to “get out of Dodge” immediately.

Innovation continued with the development of the safety lamp in England by Sir Humphrey Davy. This device did not identify the atmospheric contaminate ,but, in the hands of a good operator, it could provide a rough estimate of the degree of contamination. Unfortunately this device worked by burning a small sample of the atmosphere and it did not respond to a noncombustible agent until the concentration of the contaminate reached such heights that it began to reduce the oxygen supply to the flame. The device was far from perfect but it worked better than what was previously available. These lamps are still legal for use in some states and until recently still allowed by the United States Coast Guard.

The advent of electricity in the early 20th century allowed for great strides in the field of monitoring and detection. The hot filament flammable gas detector, typified by the MSA Explosimeter, was one of the first innovations in the field, and many of these instruments remain in service a half century after their manufacture. They revealed how much contaminate was present but again they did not identify the nature of the hazard. Also there were many possible atmospheric contaminates to which these instruments failed to respond. Again, innovation to the rescue.

The introduction of the transistor and solid state circuitry made possible the development and production of numerous monitoring and detection instruments in a portable format and allowed on-site analysis as opposed to central laboratory evaluation with a considerable saving of turnaround time. Most of the early instruments were single purpose, i.e. one for hydrogen sulfide, another for chlorine and so on. Thus the general response organization began to be burdened by literally trunks full of instruments, each one of which had to be maintained (calibrated, charged and the detectors serviced) on a regular basis. Then there were the batteries; many of these instruments consumed dry cells at a voracious rate and responders found themselves lugging around another trunk-full of batteries (and still often did not have the right one). Then there was the problem of standardization. Is the information the instrument gave out truly representative of actual atmospheric composition? To obtain reliable information concerning the atmosphere at a haz mat incident, the responder began to look like the cartoon characterization of a tourist with a multitude of instruments hanging on his person to the point that he was so loaded down that meaningful work is problematical to say the least.

Competitive innovation and the free enterprise system win again. Over the past 15 years advances in instrumentation are truly astounding. Currently there are on the market a number of “consolidated” instruments which enable the responder to identify and quantify any one of a large number of atmospheric contaminates with essentially one sampling pass. One of the most recent instruments of this type is the Eagle 2 introduced by RKI Instruments of Union City, CA.

According to the manufacturer’s literature, this instrument analyzes  up to 15 different gasses or contaminates in addition to PID and IR detection. When an analysis is complete, the instrument downloads into a standard Microsoft EXCEL spreadsheet, which can be transmitted to any computer site via e-mail or the Internet.

This instrument is manufactured in the good old USA and I am old fashioned enough to think that is a very big plus indeed. It means that the instrument will have passed the test criteria for UL, CSA, and/or Factory Mutual. It meets the requirements of OSHA, MSHA, NIOSH, NFPA and any other body having jurisdiction. This is not a small matter in the event of litigation.

Because the instrument is of American origin, timely repair and warranty service can be assured and the availability of parts is always more of a certainty.

Now, having said all that, I realize that anybody can write a spec sheet or put out a press release; living up to the claims is quite another. These fellows, however, seem to be willing to stand behind what they claim (a position that I find all too often lacking in today’s market place). I was very pleasantly surprised when they agreed to send me one of their new creations and allow me to put it through its paces. I shall receive the equipment shortly and will have it checked out before the next issue of IFW. I look forward to sharing my report with my readers at that time when I can speak from a little experience rather than from a reprinted propaganda sheet. 

For now, know the capabilities of detection equipment responders rely on. Use or test the equipment often to be sure responders can use them with accuracy and confidence and that needed repairs or adjustments are done.  

Feel free to contact this author at


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