Chemical Testing for Hazmat “Dummies”

Here’s a closer look at how the ZMac card came into existence and what lies ahead for this technology

Here at Hazmat Nation, our profiles focus on interesting hazmat teams or hazmat training facilities and their leaders. But sometimes we come across interesting products or companies that are so intriguing, we have to learn more — and, of course, share what we learn.

And that’s just what happened when we came across In Our Gear’s ZMac cards. In short, the cards combine chemical test paper with NIOSH and ERG reference material that’s easy to use in the field. We sat down with company President John Zour to learn more about the company, the cards and his thoughts on the world of hazmat response. Here’s our conversation.

What inspired your initial idea?

Our 911-based hazmat team was dispatched to an anhydrous ammonia leak at a cold storage produce packing facility in 2013. The first-arriving engine company was met with a partially evacuated warehouse, no accountability system to indicate that the building was all clear, a language barrier and a significant odor outside the building.

They donned turnout gear and SCBA, secured their two-out, had a hose line ready for emergency decon and went inside to conduct a primary search. They were equipped with a daily bump-tested four-gas meter (O2, %LEL pentane, CO and H2S).

Although our hazmat team is fully staffed, we are also an engine, tower and ALS transport unit with daily response duties. As we arrived, we quickly realized that our “staging” area was too close given the powerful odor, and we needed to relocate.

We talked to the first-arriving crew that made entry, and they said they got “50 on their meter.” We followed up with questions to figure out what sensor was giving them 50, and determined it was the LEL sensor.

The level of ammonia needed to trigger a 50% LEL reading on a pentane calibrated sensor is significantly above the IDLH level. Although most of us would dismiss this as a training deficiency (which it was), we also felt that this could happen to other companies and departments.

We quickly realized that a four-gas monitor does not tell the whole story and, like it or not, a human still has to interpret the numbers. We set out trying to make pH paper firefighter friendly.

Describe how that idea evolved into what we see today?

We started out sticking an old smart strip onto our cards — while keeping the smart strip logo seen per the patent attorney.

We realized that the cyanide paper needed 15 minutes to show a meaningful color change, which was unrealistic in our application. Our ZMac card was designed specifically for the initial moments of a hazmat incident or to trigger a hazmat upgrade to a standard run. Fifteen minutes to see a color change wasn’t acceptable, so we started producing our own with detection papers that fit our vision and mission.

What did you learn from your early failures?

That they are a necessary part of a process that is motivated by innovation and quality. We struggled with finding glue that would bond PVC to polyethylene, but eventually succeeded. 

We invested 2 years into a CO detection paper project and have been unsuccessful getting the color change to occur in a short amount of time at an appropriate level. That project continues.

What’s been the most profound story you’ve heard from a customer?

A hazmat team contacted us after using our ZMac card on an incident. The incident involved an unlabeled 1 liter container near a sensitive target hazard location. They were able to review nearby video footage that showed it had been left by a landscaper earlier in the day. They contacted the landscaper and were told that it was fuel oil mixture.

The hazmat team decided to verify the fuel oil description by using our ZMac card. They were surprised when the hydrocarbon section did not change. They followed up with a FTIR scan and determined it was not fuel oil mix, but an herbicide.

They went on to describe how the compact size of the ZMac card allowed them to quickly assess the liquid. It was the first time we heard that a negative result was just as important as a positive one. As a responding hazmat team, getting a report from a first-arriving company that they have not had any change on their ZMac card actually is valuable and tells us something.

What problem keeps you up at night?

Getting our message out when competing with “big fish.” We feel our biggest challenge is twofold.

1. How do you convince an organization that hasn’t had a near miss on a hazardous materials incident that it could be right around the corner and our ZMac card could help? I’m not sure we would have listened before 2013.

2. Marketing. As a current first responder, I’m not into frills and gimmicks. I want a product to largely speak for itself. The problem with this mindset is no one will ever hear about it if we don’t promote it. There are a lot of people and professions outside 911-based hazmat teams that would benefit from simple, reliable and economic chemical detection. From a tow operator dropping a driveshaft underneath a leaking trash truck to a building engineer replacing a light ballast in a room full of off gassing batteries, having a tool to identify the potential problem is somewhat lacking.  

What does the near-term future hold for the company and products?

We’ve connected with a few distributors and other private companies. These business relationships should allow us to offer our patented ZMac card to existing kits and products that will better serve the end user.

What does the long-term future hold for the company and products?

We would like to translate our ZMac card into different languages as we start serving different parts of the world. As detection papers evolve and improve, we would also like to offer custom chemical paper configurations for both military and private companies. This cafeteria-style approach would allow an organization to design their own ZMac card with eight chemical sections and customize the message and action items surrounding that section. These messages would be tailored for the specific industry or company based on their policies and applicable standards.

Any predictions on how hazmat response will change in the coming years?

UAVs (drones) and robots are already here, but their use will increase. We will need to be aware of what they’ve been exposed to or contaminated with. Also, wireless video and audio feeds from hot zone to cold zone will improve in reliability and allow us to better leverage the private industry knowledge base that sometimes eludes our 911-based teams.

What do you see in the hazmat world that gives you the most concern?

In many instances, awareness- and operations-level trained responders are underutilized, under equipped and sometimes under trained even though they are certified.

As hazmat calls for service increase, we would be well served to equip and use these responders within their scope of training to leverage the number of people that sometimes make the incident disappear with their thumb and wait for the team of 10 (if we’re lucky) to handle every aspect of a hazmat incident.

Last, but not least — batteries. This is so prevalent in our world already, and the chemistry is constantly changing. The engine company or transport unit that arrives first with a life-safety issue is going to need to take action. And the frequency of these calls won’t allow the hazmat team to be on every call before action is taken.

What do you see in the hazmat world that gives you the greatest sense of optimism?

A great network of “gray hair” experience willing and able to share their experiences to the next generation. There doesn’t seem to be as much of an ego in the hazmat world. It’s typically a humble group of people that likes to share, listen and offer advice without judgement.

ZMac in action – Fictional Incident Demo

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