The new plan: Using wirelessly connected monitoring equipment to protect First Response Hazmat teams

CarolinaFireJournal - Bobby Sheikhan
Bobby Sheikhan
08/01/2012 -

From the time it capsized at a refinery dock in Texas City, the listing barge — loaded with 235,000 gallons of sulfuric acid — began seeping its toxic, corrosive load into the 30-foot-deep waterway. The water mixing with sulfuric acid inside the hull had begun to corrode the steel. This process reduced the barge’s structural integrity and created reactions inside the sealed compartment that generated a cloud of highly flammable, highly pressurized hydrogen gas — just one spark away from a calamitous blast.

It was time for a new plan.

That plan included federal and regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) personnel expanding the “hot zone” and deploying three wireless multi-gas monitors to provide real-time data and 24/7 monitoring of the acid cloud.

This rapidly deployable gas-detection network monitored the incident area to help keep response crews and salvage workers safe and created a virtual command center. Good thing: The incident lasted 10 days with 100 responders on scene at its peak.


New cloud-based software solutions provide better ways to view and aggregate data from multiple sensors and incident sources.

This is a good illustration of the advantages of using wirelessly-connected atmospheric-monitoring equipment for the detection of airborne hazards, including detecting volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Why Wireless Monitoring Systems?

Wireless gas and radiation monitoring systems are particularly well suited for rapid deployment such as delineating perimeters for Hazmat incident response, law enforcement operations involving chemical threats, and protecting a temporary military camp from chemical warfare agents. The entire system can be up and running in less than five minutes.

Wireless systems for atmospheric monitoring for chemical and compound detection use standard and proprietary wireless technologies to deliver reliable “always on” cable-free connections for fast, easy and flexible deployments. These advanced monitors combine battery-powered sensors and integrated radio-frequency (RF) technology operating over license-free frequency bands.

Wireless monitoring systems are commonly used in responses to hazardous materials spills or leaks. The systems can be used to:

  • Rapidly deploy to the spill or accident and then retreat to the host computer at a safe distance to assess the need for personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Delineate a safe operating zone, inside which PPE should be worn while the release is being cleaned up.
  • Delineate a vapor plume in the broader region so that evacuations can be coordinated to only the necessary zones.

Real-Time Detection Monitoring

A key advantage to this new generation of wireless detection monitors is the ability to broadcast alarms and data in real time that are accessible via the Internet

Improved wireless system interoperability is another advantage. It allows systems used in industrial and environmental applications to share data with first responders on an emergency basis. Similarly, first responders with mutual-aid agreements also can share wireless instruments and data with other responding agencies, which helps increase safety when disasters strike.

Additionally, wirelessly enabled instruments, such as personal and hand-held monitors, include an alarm notification that send wireless remote alarms to the safety team so that help can be dispatched faster than ever before. The wireless transmission of data allows companies to archive information for compliance review, mediation and remediation, and for access later to evaluate situational responses, or to provide training and corporate governance.

Combining Wireless Incident Assessment With Wireless Physiological Readings

Today, new wireless Bioharnesses can provide safety managers with unprecedented, real-time visibility into the physical status of personnel operating in high stress and extreme environments.

The wireless BioHarness, a non-intrusive, lightweight chest worn strap incorporate ECG (electrocardiogram), breathing rate, temperature, posture and activity sensors for real-time portable physiological monitoring. This allows safety officers to quickly access and monitor a person’s bio-readings, and remove them from a fatigue situation if their readings are high.

Wireless Bioharnesses can transmit sensor readings and GPS coordinates in real time to a PC running safety monitoring software. The BioHarness readings can be evaluated in software and coupled with a variety of safety sensor readings, including detected VOCs, chemical warfare agent (CWA) and radiation, for early detection and characterization of hazardous atmospheres.

Wireless Monitoring Systems Bring Cost Advantages

Depending on specific configuration and system requirements, wirelessly connected hazard-detection monitoring systems can provide substantial savings, especially compared to fixed, hard-wired or dock-and-download approaches.

These cost savings, combined with increases in productivity, help wireless systems provide total cost-of-ownership benefits — especially in a time of close budget scrutiny.

Other wireless gas and radiation detection benefits include:

  • Real-time continuous data collection
  • Less time making manual readings and entering data into record-keeping databases.
  • Reduction in travel and fuel costs as personnel rely on transmitting data wirelessly from remote locations.
  • The ability to gather more data from more sources for wide-ranging, cohesive evaluations of a facility, incident or terrorist threat.

Law Enforcement Forced Entry Situations

In some cases such as clandestine drug labs and other forced entry situations, there are safety threats due to armed criminals or terrorists combined with possible chemical vapor hazards. The police typically enter first, followed by the Hazmat team, which determines the chemical safety only after the area is secure.

With the wireless system, law officers can enter the building, quickly drop down the monitor, and the Hazmat team can immediately begin assessing the chemical hazards using the wireless signal. The Hazmat team can then warn the law officers by radio of a chemical risk.

Wireless Hazmat Assessment — Reduces Level-A Encapsulation

When approaching a potential Hazmat incident, wireless monitors help response commanders make PPE decisions quickly.

In 2010, a Hazmat team was called by a railroad to respond to a leaking tank car loaded with benzene on a hot (95o F), humid (95 percent RH) summer day. In the wireless assessment of the “leaking” tank car, it was found that the puddle under the car was coming from condensation, not dripping benzene. The wireless detectors helped the commander reduce the time and cost of the response and potential of heat-stress injuries from dressing out in full Level-A encapsulation.

When Disasters Hit: Gulf Oil Spill

Capturing atmospheric-hazard data on a large scale was a critical element in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, considered the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

During the extensive cleanup effort, wireless multi-gas detection systems were deployed for use on ships involved in the massive response effort.

During the three-month response effort, ships were moving through the oil- and air-contaminated waters providing command and cleanup support, and other worker services. Workers aboard these ships risked exposure to harmful toxins, including benzene, a component of crude oil and a known carcinogen.

Key to the operation was the wireless portable handheld monitors and gas detectors , which logged atmospheric conditions for each ship and sent the information in real time back to a command center. There, information from literally hundreds of vessels was analyzed in various ways, logged and stored.

Wireless detection systems also were used in monitoring air quality along the coastlines of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida during the Gulf response. The systems performed continuous, “always on” monitoring of the shoreline and inner waterways around the Gulf region.


Today’s wirelessly connected monitoring systems for the detection of dangerous atmospheric gases and compounds provide a range of benefits for military and environmental Hazmat teams.

The rapid deployment, easy setup and reliable remote monitoring are benefits that allow first responders and government organizations to provide unsurpassed responder safety, and comply with industry regulations. The capability of broadcasting alarms in real time gives incident commanders unprecedented access to detection data as well as the ability to monitor bio readings of first responders. The ability to combine bio physiological readings and GPS coordinates of responders with their VOC data provides commanders additional real-time capability to determine risks and deploy response teams.

New cloud-based software solutions provide better ways to view and aggregate data from multiple sensors and incident sources. Advances in secure Internet applications and the ability to access data anywhere, anytime, have made these real-time interactions possible.

A range of Hazmat and environmental applications can benefit from wirelessly connected gas-detection systems. Today’s industrial-grade wireless systems provide reliable safety monitoring that keeps responders safe, and organizations in compliance — all while having a positive effect on the bottom line. Applications range from hazardous waste services such as industrial cleaning and overhaul applications to environmental remediation services using wide-area atmospheric monitoring.

Bobby Sheikhan is director of product management for RAE Systems. He is experienced in providing training in air-monitoring and emergency-response planning for a wide range of industries. Mr. Sheikhan led the RAE Systems team that worked directly with HazMat fi rst responders in the Gulf Oil Crisis and has assisted civil defense, highprofi le public event safety, major metropolitan fi rst responder and Hazmat teams, multinational oil and gas corporations and major industrial sites measure, track and evaluate real time data from RAE Systems gas and radiation monitors.
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