New system helps county firefighters

Saturday, November 3, 2007
Doug Ehman checks out new HazMatID system

Is that mysterious white powder anthrax or is it talcum?

A new piece of diagnostic equipment in the hands of Putnam County emergency responders can now determine that in a matter of seconds -- down to the brand.

Thanks to a Department of Homeland Security program, the Putnam County Board of Health received a Smith Detection HazMatID hazardous material detection system in September, free of charge.

The system, which normally retails for about $100,000, relies on infrared spectroscopy and a database of chemical information on more than 5,000 known substances to identify solids and liquids of all shapes and sizes " from household chemicals to explosives, nerve agents, toxic chemicals and even some illegal drugs.

The Greencastle Fire Department already has a system that can perform similar duties, but emergency responders must remove a sample of the material from the "hot zone" and take it to the larger, bulkier system to be tested, said Doug Ehman, the Public Health Coordinator who is trained in the HazMatID's operation.

The beauty of the new system is that it's portable " the entire machine weighs less than 25 pounds and fits into a self-contained hard plastic case that's only a little bigger than a briefcase.

By testing hazardous materials in contained hazmat zones, the machine decreases the likelihood of spreading contamination, Ehman said.

Ehman is a member of the Cloverdale Township Volunteer Fire Department, but by housing the system at the health department, it will be available for dispatch to any agency in Putnam and the surrounding counties that needs it, he said.

Currently Ehman is the only hazmat-certified firefighter in the county who has training on the system, though emergency crews can reach him 24-hours per day through dispatch, he said.

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