WHEELING, W.Va. -- A $15 strip of vinyl and paper that changes colors when exposed to nerve agents, cyanide and other chemicals may protect police, firefighters and others who rush unprotected into the heart of a disaster.
The HazMat Smart Strip, inspired by decades-old military technology, will go into production at a West Virginia print shop within weeks. Fire departments in New York and Florida already have ordered hundreds of the strips.
"It's not cool to use your nose to detect chemical spills," said Lt. Cris Aguirre, a hazardous materials technician for one customer, the Miami-Dade Fire Department in south Florida.
Some chemicals are not detectable with the nose anyway, and the respirators that firefighters often wear would allow them to smell only the purified air. Outdoors, a fire producing acrid smoke could overwhelm other odors.
The baseball card-sized Smart Strip can detect chlorine, pH, fluoride, nerve agents, oxidizers, arsenic, sulfides and cyanide in liquid or aerosol form at minute levels.
A change in color in any of the eight categories alerts emergency crews to get additional gear, decontaminate or evacuate. How long they have to act depends on the chemical.
Within the eight categories are thousands of possible compounds, but hazardous materials technicians say the Smart Strip is still a valuable early warning system.
"It might not tell me exactly what it is, but it gives me an alarm," Aguirre said. "It's like the fire alarm in your house. It tells you take action, leave."
Inventor Mike Reimer got the idea after years of watching his colleagues tape pieces of pH paper and a military litmus paper called M8 to their hazardous materials uniforms, which resemble a spacesuit.
M8 and a newer version, M9, detect nerve and blister agents, but not chemical vapors. For decades, soldiers have wrapped the papers around their arms, wrists and ankles to warn when they brush up against a liquid nerve agent.
"I thought, 'Man! That would be nice to have it all in one paper.' So we figured out how," said Reimer, a full-time firefighter and hazardous materials technician in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Reimer formed Safety Solutions Inc. of Boynton Beach, Fla., and took his concept to the National Technology Transfer Center at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va. Congress created the center in 1989 to help take technology from the lab to the commercial sector.
The strip is "a novel, very low-tech idea," said Mike Lucey, manager of the NTTC's Emergency Response Technology program.
"It's a prime example of what the ERT program is all about - identifying particular areas of need within the emergency response community and identifying solutions to those needs," he said.
Teams collecting hazardous debris from the space shuttle Columbia could be using the Smart Strip today, Lucey said. NASA has said the shuttle parts are tainted with a variety of toxic materials, including corrosive fuels and ammonia-like liquids such as hydrazine.
But the Smart Strip's top selling points are its price and ease of use.
A recent study by the National Institute of Justice found that nearly 87 percent of the nation's police departments have 20 or fewer employees, meaning their equipment budgets are small.
Electronic monitors that detect chemicals can cost between $2,000 to $50,000 per device, Reimer said. The monitors also require extensive training to operate and thousands of dollars to maintain.
The HazMat Smart Strip requires little training and attaches with either a peel-and-stick adhesive strip or a clip like those used for identification badges. Once the protective film is peeled off, the cards are operational for 12 hours, or until they are exposed to one of the eight substances.
"Everything that's on this strip can be done with multiple tests and different types of devices. But this makes it handy, easy to carry and quick," said Jeff Borkowski, a hazmat technician with New York City's fire department. "It's more like a down-and-dirty safety net, so to speak.
"From what we see, they're going to be a very, very worthwhile tool."