Seeing is believing – LAPD HMU gets close look in the HotZone

LAPD Microscope - Photo Courtesy Matt Sieber

LAPD Microscope – Photo Courtesy Matt Sieber

 

The Los Angeles Police Department’s Hazardous Materials Unit (HMU) is a highly specialized team consisting of police officers from varying Los Angeles Police Department backgrounds.  The team is comprised of seven Hazmat Specialist Officers (HSO) and is headed by an Officer-in-Charge (OIC) sergeant.  The HMU is an integral component of the LAPD’s Counter-Terrorism response capability, specializing in Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and the identification of “unknown materials/agents”.  In addition to being sworn LAPD officers, unit members receive emergency response training and acquire skills to identify potential biological pathogens, chemical-weapon agents and radiological materials.

The HMU has run thousands of white powder letter calls over the years and is also a component of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) which includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies responsible for investigating domestic terrorism involving Nuclear, Biological and Chemical WMD’s.

The HMU’s function in the JTTF is to protect the public by surveying with specialized equipment thus identifying potential WMD’s and conducting evidence searches in the
“Hot-Zone” (area of high exposure/contamination potential). These HazMat cops are highly trained and practice their skills daily.

HazMatNation.com recently got a sneak peak at a piece of high tech equipment being used by the LAPD HMU. “It is a hybrid scope. We’ve had it modified so that we can evaluate potential biological specimens (phase microscopy) and chemical evaluation (polarized light microscopy-PLM)” Officer Matt Sieber tells HMN. Each Officer(7 Techs) has one which are stored in wheeled pelican cases designed specifically to go down range into the hot-zone with us. The current magnification capability is 40x, 100x, 630x &1000x (oil immersion) using four different attached objectives. “This enables us to see microorganisms in the near sub-micron range” adds Officer Sieber. Bacteria specimens in the 3-5 micron range are easily visible with the scopes and also enable the HazMat cops to discern between chemical vs biological structure. Their latest enhancement to the system (May 2015) enables them to use a tablet for viewing media. The attached camera on the scope is wifi enabled that streams high res pics/video to the technician enabling him/her to keep their APR (air purifying respirator) masks on while working the incident. After capturing the images on the tablet, they can easily email the images to other stakeholders involved in adjudicating the incident. If it is deemed necessary, the samples will be transported and further evaluated by the lab as warranted, at the discretion of on-scene Federal/Public Health assets.

Cost?  As outfitted, each scope runs approximately $25k but enables rapid confirmation and often swift conclusion of incidents.  HMN found that even the experts at the laboratories start with the same type of picture of the potential threat to ‘size up’ the substance so getting a preview from the teams in the field greatly improves an overall rapid response and safe resolution to the incident.

As noted in the picture, a technician could see in real-time (down-range) that the sample is clearly a chemical structure (as opposed to a biological specimen) and thus report their findings to the IC. - HMN

As noted in the picture, a technician could see in real-time (down-range) that the sample is clearly a chemical structure (as opposed to a biological specimen) and thus report their findings to the IC. – HMN

Officer Sieber reminds us that the scope is always used in conjunction with other available presumptive tests such as 20/20, PCR, Raman/FTIR spectroscopy, LFD assays etc.
“I don’t know of anybody else that uses portable scopes in the field for bio detection. We use it to discern the possibility of biological matter vs chemical structure. We don’t use it to specifically identify the bio material” says Sieber.  In the following pictures Officer Sieber explains what is shown through the scope.   “As you can see from the pics, the two are uniquely different in shape/structure. The bios are always very similar in shape and size and are in the micron range (bacteria). It is the best way in my opinion as i can’t argue with my own eyes… It is a visual conformation of the potential presence of microbial organisms, a tool in the tool box if you will” Sieber a long time hazmatter tells HMN.

Officer Sieber trains his team to understand the difference (recognize) between what a chemical structure looks like versus a very small (similar in shape, size and amplitude/morphology) biological/bacterial structure looks like and never to identify the bacteria.  Specific identification of the bacteria is the work of a trained/professional microbiologist (which the LAPD has readily available).  The success of the scope in the field is due largely to the great coordination and mutual training the HMU performs regularly with the other stakeholders.  These HazMat cops have regular contact with area experts from Fire, Public Health, FBI, Universities, and other HazMat teams. – HMN Staff

 

LAPD Microscope - Photo Courtesy Matt Sieber

LAPD Microscope – Photo Courtesy Matt Sieber

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Anthrax Spores – LAPD HMU

TNT as seen through the scope – HMN

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9 comments

  1. Is there any additional info available on the scope? Make, model, etc.
    Thanks.

  2. Wow, great article 🙂 Kudos to the staff and writter of the article.

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