Wearable Tech Mitigates First Responder Exposure to Chemical Threats

Emergency responders are dispatched to calls for situations ranging from industrial, agricultural, and commercial accidents to five-alarm fires. In these moments, they are relied upon to render aid swiftly and efficiently, even if it means risking their personal safety. This is why the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is leading a new effort to arm responders with state-of-the-art technology that alerts them to toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) that may be present in the field.

Their goal is to support the development (and, ultimately commercialization) of a cost-effective, wearable, customizable, and reusable chemical sensor that allows first-on-scene personnel to respond to a wide variety of emergencies quickly and safely.

“Our emergency responders need to have the most up-to-date technologies and tools that will enable them to safely answer these calls,” said Kimberli Jones-Holt, S&T program manager. “We are collaborating with several partners to ensure that they have access to these resources, and also enhance existing technologies to provide more convenient and affordable safety capabilities.”

Thanks to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, S&T joined forces with TDA Research inc. (TDA), the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, the Fairmount Fire Department in Golden, Colorado, and additional government and private stakeholders to develop a portable chemical sensor that detects TICs (e.g., hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, phosphine, hydrogen cyanide, chlorine, and nitrogen dioxide) that firefighters and other similar emergency responders could potentially be exposed to during a response. Following the successful completion of a Phase I contract, TDA was awarded an additional 24-month SBIR Phase II contract to develop a simple low-cost wearable sensor badge, and then continued further development of their technology through a 12-month SBIR Commercialization Readiness Pilot Program (CRPP) award.

“TICs are commonly found in many industries and are often used as a crucial part of manufacturing, refining, and other commercial processes and related activities,” explained Jones-Holt. “As a result, when industrial or chemical emergencies, fires, or natural disasters occur, it’s very likely that firefighters and other first-on-scene personnel will encounter them when they respond to calls in the field.”

“TICs can be easily inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, causing irritation of the nose, mouth, throat, eyes, and skin,” continued Jones-Holt. “Depending on the type of TIC, prolonged exposure can be deadly. Therefore, it’s crucial that emergency responders are properly equipped to deal with and be protected from them.”

To meet this crucial need, TDA developed and deployed prototype wearable chemical sensor badges with firefighters and emergency responders at the Fairmount Fire Department to demonstrate and verify that the badges could quickly and accurately alert users to the presence of dangerous TICs. These devices are meant to improve situational awareness and enable responders to leave the scene before any harmful exposure and associated injuries occur.

“My hope is that these wearable chemical sensor badges will prove to be an effective and comfortable tool that increases situational awareness and supplements the current chemical and gas sensors that are being used by our first responders,” said Jones-Holt.

Most existing chemical and gas sensor technologies are expensive and bulky, which is not ideal for agencies that often contend with tight budgets for equipment and limited space on vehicles. TDA’s wearable sensor badges will be much more portable, cost approximately $200 each, and utilize easily replaceable colorimetric chemical sensor strips (costing ~$5-10 each). They will also run on rechargeable batteries, giving first-on-scene responders an affordable, cutting-edge tool that can be used repeatedly in the field.

The badges use specialized sensors that sample the air to detect the presence of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, phosphine, hydrogen cyanide, chlorine, and nitrogen dioxide at trace levels. If any TICs are detected, the sensors will send alerts to the wearer via a colorimetric sensor cartridge strip that displays up to six different colors (depending on which TICs are present) on a LED screen on the front of the badge. The screen will automatically indicate which chemical or gas has been identified, and how much of it is present in the environment (in parts per million). The badge also has vibratory and auditory alarming features that will automatically be triggered during an exposure as well.