Using Technology to Gauge Appropriate Responses

Unseen threats are routine for first responders. Knowing whether there is imminent danger is key to getting home safely. This column outlines several cases in which the Chicago, IL, Fire Department (CFD) learned the value of using available technology in gauging an appropriate response.

More than 10 years ago, the CFD began deploying single-gas carbon monoxide (CO) monitors on all 200 of its engines and trucks. This came about with the advent of commercially available CO monitors for home use. The early home units often went into false alarm, and this would result in a panicked call from a homeowner for a response from the fire department. The need to know whether there was an immediate threat to life or health could not wait for the arrival of a hazardous material response team. Each engine company was initially equipped with an industrial, single-gas CO monitor. These were most useful in the winter, when CO calls were often due to incomplete combustion in faulty heating systems.

"After a family died from carbon monoxide poisoning 12 years ago, we first deployed single-gas CO sensors on every truck," said Chief Daniel O'Connell, coordinator for CFD Special Operations and Hazardous Materials.

Single-gas CO monitors might still be the norm had it not been for some catastrophic events. In one instance, an engine company arrived for what was thought to be a CO call. Because there was no alarm from the CO monitor, firefighters assumed all was safe and entered the building. One firefighter turned on the building's lights, initiating an explosion from a natural gas leak. "We began investigating the use of four-gas meters … after several 911 calls where the CO monitor was not sufficient to detect the unseen threat, and we had two gas explosions," added O'Connell.

Over a two-year period, the department evaluated different combinations of instruments and sensors. The objective was to determine whether there was an immediate threat to life or health and, if the instrument alarmed, whether it would be sufficient to determine the need to secure the area and notify a hazmat team. The department's two hazmat teams tested various combinations of instruments using four sensors: lower explosive limit (LEL) for combustible materials, CO, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and oxygen (O2). Each sensor was chosen for the life-critical or time-critical threat information provided if it went into alarm. The CO sensor was already proven. The LEL sensor was selected to detect the presence of high levels of flammable gas. The hydrogen sulfide sensor was chosen because H2S easily saturates a responder's sense of smell. The oxygen sensor was selected because it would immediately indicate the need for an air mask and may also show the presence of an oxidizer. Other sensors that were considered included chlorine and ammonia, but both substances have other characteristics that make them identifiable. Four-gas instruments were evaluated for ruggedness, user interface, calibration stability, battery life and ease of service. "We went through an evaluation process and selected the RAE Systems QRAE. The QRAE adds to the complement of RAE Systems instruments already used by the CFD hazmat teams, including wireless AreaRAE RDK monitors, MultiRAE Plus four-gas monitors with PIDs, ppbRAE PIDs for decontamination and others," said O'Connell.

To gain personnel efficiency, the four-gas instrument calibration team works out of the same division as the breathing-air pack services. "Our in-house technicians maintain our fleet of over 200 QRAE units deployed at 102 firehouses," said Chief Robert Anthony, coordinator of the Chicago Fire Department's Division of Equipment and Supply. "We currently calibrate each unit using the AutoRAE calibration station on a monthly cycle."

The CFD training academy was called to develop a training and certification program in the new four-gas instruments. "Much of the initial training on four-gas instrument deployment was done by AFC International, an equipment supplier to the Chicago Fire Department," said Doug Mayer, RAE Systems director of eastern U.S. and Canadian sales. "Jim Seneczko and his company have provided much of the on-site training and support that the Chicago Fire Department required."

This training was encouraged using rank incentives in a similar fashion to emergency medical certifications. "The Chicago Fire Department has encouraged all of our firefighters to learn the basics of hazardous material response by offering level A and B technician certifications," said Lieutenant Myron Kovalevich of the CFD's Training Academy.

At the same time as the fire department was growing in its use of gas monitors, hazmat team members became more specialized. They developed new response protocols that were made part of academy training. Two procedures that became standard practice are the immediate use of an air-mask or self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) at 35 parts per million (ppm) of carbon monoxide, and a CO reading of over 100 ppm makes the response a level-one hazmat event. Other procedures include the immediate ventilation of a response scene when LEL exceeds 10% and the use of the four-gas meter in post-fire overhauls to determine when it is safe to remove SCBA. On-site response procedures include a fresh-air calibration of the meter prior to any building entry in addition to the monthly full instrument calibration. For confined-space entry, the fire department has deployed both the four-gas meter and in many cases the wireless AreaRAE monitors. As part of each after-response review, the on-scene data logs from any gas meters that were deployed are reviewed for alarms and reading response times.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, began a new era for first responders. The first protocols and equipment were tested as part of the May 2003 TopOff Drills, multi-agency events that included the U.S. National Guard Civil Support Teams, U.S. and Illinois Environmental Protection Agencies, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), FBI and U.S. Coast Guard. As a result, the hazmat teams developed decontamination protocols for toxic chemicals and radiation.

The drills included the first deployment of AreaRAE wireless toxic gas and radiation monitors for public venue protection. The TopOff Drills showed the need for critical incident information to be available beyond the local incident commander. The advent of secure Internet protocols has let the fire department engage remote specialists from the federal agencies and allowed all of them to see the same real-time sensor data. During large events, connected gas detection technology has played a key role in creating safety deployment comfort with civilian and municipal data users.

New technologies have led the CFD hazmat teams to develop public venue protection protocols that have moved beyond the normal responsibilities of the fire department. The City of Chicago responded to potential large-scale threats that may require a multi-agency response by forming the Office of Emergency Management. In addition to issues related to homeland security, the department took on the responsibilities performed by the fire department's Bureau of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Services and created what is now known as the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC). Today, OEMC protects life and property by operating the public safety communications system and by coordinating and managing emergency situations.

On Feb. 10, 2005, the OEMC launched a Homeland Security Grid that includes both fiber optic and copper cable. This grid enables Chicago to expand its use of surveillance cameras and biological, chemical and radiological sensors. These cameras and sensors simultaneously feed into the city's Operations Center for coordination of critical city services and emergency response.

BOB DURSTENFELD is RAE Systems' senior director of corporate marketing and investor relations. Before joining RAE Systems, he was senior director and staff technologist for the Silicon Valley office of Fleishman-Hillard Public Relations. Durstenfeld has also held marketing and management positions at Agilent Technologies and Hewlett-Packard Co. He has a master's degree in engineering management and international marketing from Santa Clara University and a bachelor of science degree in engineering and biology from UCLA. For more information, see