Perspective On: A Mobile Lab

The Cleveland Fire Department's mobile lab begins and ends with equipment.

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Born of the anthrax mailing scare of 2002, the mobile lab in the hazardous materials section of the Cleveland Fire Department in Ohio deals with public health risks and the identification of unknown, potentially dangerous substances in the region. In early 2000, that meant going after white powders that could be anthrax.

“Going back to approximately 2002, when we started chasing all the white powders and there were a lot of unknowns, we decided [on] a better way, a better mousetrap if you will, of trying to find unknowns,” said Lieutenant Terry Bindernagel of the department’s hazardous materials section about how the lab got its start.

The fire department worked with the McCrone Group’s Hooke College of Applied Sciences, based in Westmont, Illinois, to develop the lab, which has about eight employees and is fitted onto a 20- foot box trailer, making it easy to transport to sites in Cleveland and the surrounding counties the fire department covers. That vehicle was put into service in 2004.

“It’s used not only for response, but it’s also used at events, and [its use] varies,” Lt. Bindernagel said about the number of calls the mobile lab responds to annually, adding that because of that variability it’s tough to pinpoint an exact average number of calls the lab responds to. “It’s based on perceived needs sometimes [as well].”

A typical request for the mobile lab can come from anywhere—either within Cleveland or the surrounding counties—and responding to that call can mean spending from one to eight hours at the site.

“It depends on the situation, how long it takes to get a sample, and [whether] you have to work with other agencies at a scene,” Lt. Bindernagel explained. “Sometimes when I go to a scene it’s a law enforcement issue—it varies. So you’re sometimes working within other people’s frameworks.”

When the team arrives on-site, they meet with whoever is in charge. Sometimes the fire department itself is in charge, and other times law enforcement or the FBI has control over the situation.

“We show up, and we assist on the scene,” Lt. Bindernagel says of working with other agencies. “We work under them–whatever they ask for, whatever they request, we try to provide it.”

The vehicle that houses the fire department’s mobile lab and that transports the lab to various sites in and around Cleveland.

Lab setup

Like most labs, the Cleveland Fire Department’s mobile lab begins and ends with its equipment. “A typical day would be coming down, prepping the equipment, center[ing] the scope … We discharge and charge [the instruments] to try to keep the battery life up on all our equipment, checking out the vehicle; there [are] different things,” Lt. Bindernagel said. “A lot of times it’s just the maintenance of the lab and preparation.”

That maintenance is typically done at least several times a week, he added. The main technology hardware used in the mobile lab includes microscopes, infrared equipment, and GC-MS as well as radiation meters and meters that can detect volatile organic compounds, because of the response aspect of the facility. A specially designed glove box is also a key part of the lab.

“McCrone helped us develop a glove box; I can look at samples through the microscope, and it’s entirely enclosed in the glovebox—I can manipulate [the sample in the glove box] ... and do everything that you could do on a bench,” Lt. Bindernagel said. “To the best of our knowledge—McCrone and I have talked about this–this is very unusual; this is not something that I would call standard by any means.”

Though the lab is small, it’s set up in such a way that the hazmat team has just the amount of room they need for the job. “The lab surprisingly has a lot of room for what we have,” Lt. Bindernagel said. “We have a relatively small space that we can work in as far as bench space … but outside of that, we planned what we were going to use around how we built the lab, so spacewise and everything, we actually have quite a bit of room.”

Continuing education

As far as required education, members of the hazmat team who work in the lab not only have to train with regular firefighting equipment, but they must also be proficient with the specialized instruments in the mobile lab.

“The training revolves heavily around our normal response equipment, plus we’ve all gone to the McCrone College of Microscopy [now Hooke College],” Lt. Bindernagel said. “We’ve also [done work] based on [certain minimums of] the National Response System that we are now trying to meet; there’s certain standardized training that a lot of our guys are going through, and surprisingly some of this standardized training actually covers some of the particular pieces of equipment related to the lab.”

The entrance of the Cleveland Fire Department’s mobile lab through the rear door of the vehicle.

He added that some of the technology requires training from outside sources.

“There [are] just two or three pieces of equipment [that] are very specialized [that] require outside training, and one, of course, is the [microscope],” he said. “We get that [microscopy training] through McCrone.”

One of the lab’s biggest challenges, along with changing technology, is finding the time to make sure staff are up to snuff with all their training, Lt. Bindernagel said. In September alone the department expected to put in about 12 hours of training. “We just have to set aside training time,” he said of how the hazmat division meets that challenge. “We have to tell guys that they’re going to block off pieces of their schedule for x number of hours on this day, and then on that particular day we meet and we’ll take a piece of equipment and we’ll start to work at it.” He added that Hooke College has continued to be a big help in keeping the mobile lab team’s skills sharp.

The combined glove boxes used in the Cleveland Fire Department’s mobile lab.

“The Hooke College people have assisted me greatly from the standpoint that they offer things, like they’ll send us an unknown and then they monitor us; for example, you can call them back and say ‘We had trouble with this or trouble with that,’ and they just walk us through it,” Lt. Bindernagel said. “That’s just one example.”

Many of the hazmat division’s equipment vendors also provide courses for the more complex technology featured in the hazmat lab. “A lot of manufacturers, when you get into equipment that’s either (a) technical or (b) it’s expensive, or both, every other year they’ll say, ‘Hey, do you want us to come down and do some continuing ed for you?’” Lt. Bindernagel said. “So that’s assisted us greatly—a lot more people are getting on board. [But] the people at McCrone have probably been head and shoulders above most of the other people we’ve worked with.”

While outside agencies are a key part of keeping staff training current, Lt. Bindernagel said the team members also practice themselves while they are out on a call. “A lot of times, we’ll actually be in response, we’ll be working on something, and we’ll think of [a piece of training],” he said. “So what we’re doing in response [is] we’re going back and revisiting some of the things and pulling out our old manuals and looking at things.”

That means running extra tests, even if they aren’t absolutely necessary. “Sometimes we go out of our way to run a test on something even though we know it won’t give us the results that we need to make an ID, but we’ll do it anyway to confirm it,” said Lt. Bindernagel, who has been a firefighter for 30 years. “It’s just a way of keeping ourselves abreast of how to use that piece of equipment.”

Apart from training and maintenance and a high changeover of lab personnel, choosing the best technology for the lab is also often a challenge.

“As equipment comes on [the market], we’d love to see it put into our environment, but it’s not always that easy,” Lt. Bindernagel said. “The challenge is … we don’t always know what might be the exact best piece of equipment for us.”

Best parts of the job

Lt. Bindernagel said using the equipment and getting the results needed are the things he likes best about being a part of the mobile lab’s team.

“When you start to use the equipment, it’s very much like the pieces start to fall in order and you start to see what’s happening; when the equipment works in the manner where [the pieces] complement one another–that’s what I find very satisfying,” Lt. Bindernagel said. “Then you know things are working out the way that you anticipated them to.”

Some of the most interesting calls he’s dealt with have involved working with other agencies.

“When we work with outside agencies and they’re not familiar with what we’re trying to do, I would have to say they’ve been very pleasantly surprised when they see the lab and they see its capabilities,” he said.

The people he works with and the challenge and variety the job provide are other reasons Lt. Bindernagel loves his work.

“Working in a large city department like I do—Cleveland, Ohio—there are multiple opportunities, there [are] a lot of things you can explore, different areas you can work within, different bureaus–it’s very much a great time,” Lt. Bindernagel said. “It’s been a great time for 30 years.”

A robotic future

In the future, Lt. Bindernagel would like to see the mobile lab’s use expanded to a larger portion of the state of Ohio.

“I think it’s an asset,” he said of the lab. “I’d like to invite people who, for example, work for the health department and [people] along those lines to become part of the response team. I think that would be very appropriate. To date, that hasn’t happened, but I think a lot of that is because of logistics; just because of where we are located in the state, it’s very hard.”

Going robotic is another thing Lt. Bindernagel has been working on with NASA, with hopes of integrating robots into the Cleveland Fire Department’s lab.

“We’re actually now trying to work robotics into our lab; in other words, we can send the robot in with certain pieces of our equipment to try to at least get readings," he said. "It's going to be somewhat limited on which equipment it can take in, but we're trying to work it out now where we can get remote readings - we [won't] have to commit personnel."

A closer look at the unique glove box with built-in microscopy used by the Cleveland Fire Department’s hazmat division.

Aside from being safer, robotics will also provide another important benefit.

"We also think it's going to save time," Lt. Bindernagel said. "So we're just taking it from there."

Main Instruments:

• Hapsite portable GCMS, FTIR and Raman spectroscopy

• Radiation detection and other instruments for solid, vapor or liquid identification

• HazCat Kit for simple chemistry tests

• Olympus BX 52 microscope with phase and cross polars, also fluorescence

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Published: October 1, 2012

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