Seal of Approval
The nation’s national laboratories are developing an innovative product certification program for radiation detection technologies that first responders can use in the war on terror. The program literally envisions new technologies, sets standards for their design and operation, and then certifies (or rejects) the products as manufacturers submit them.
“If first responders are going to use technology for critical applications, it must meet quality standards and do what its advertising says it will do,” says Joseph C. McDonald, a physicist in the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). “A win for us is not just completing the testing, but also providing information that makes it possible to get reliable equipment in the field as quickly as possible.”
The program, being managed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), may follow the pattern established by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), with acceptable equipment receiving a seal of approval. In fact, officials are discussing the possibility of using the UL mark itself.
When the program rolls out in mature form, first responder agencies will use DHS reports containing lists of approved devices to purchase radiation detection equipment. The idea is to eliminate the need for first responder agencies to spend time researching claims about performance by several manufacturers, McDonald says.
PNNL conducted one of its first rounds of certification testing last year. The lab evaluated small radiation detectors that will be carried by law enforcement officers, fire fighters, hazardous material teams and other first-responders.
Unlike conventional product certification routines, the certification program begins by defining a product that may not exist in the market.
In this case, PNNL and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) developed performance criteria for the radiation detectors. Next, McDonald chaired a 17-member commission that developed criteria for testing the performance of products against the ANSI standards.
Armed with the ANSI performance standards and testing criteria, manufacturers designed, developed, and built new detectors and submitted them to PNNL for review.
McDonald notes that the rating system will not assume that one technological concept will work for all applications. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard requires radiation detectors that will survive exposure to salt water and extreme temperatures, while city law enforcement officers require detectors offering portability and swift reaction times.
With that in mind, PNNL evaluated more than 100 radiation detectors, representing approximately 30 different models, from a host of manufacturers. The tests rated radiological sensitivity, electrical systems performance, mechanical stability, environmental susceptibilities and other key performance characteristics.
“With so many devices to test, we had to develop methods to automate the tests,” McDonald says. “Standard testing methods qualify single instruments in a couple of weeks. With this program, we don’t have that kind of time.”
For example, in testing the sensitivity of the detectors, PNNL built a computer-controlled test chamber with a pneumatic drive that would expose detectors to radiation and track how quickly the alarm sounded. The chamber assembly made it possible to test the devices unsupervised for hours.
“We also used automated digital cameras capable of reading numbers on instruments inside temperature chambers,” McDonald says. “This enabled us to make sure that readings remained constant despite wide temperature swings.”
All told, PNNL took over 2,000 individual measurements on the 100 devices. Another round of testing scheduled for this May will evaluate about 70 more detectors. A report will consolidate PNNL’s findings later this year.
While PNNL has been working on hand-held radiation detectors, other national laboratories are testing other kinds of detector technologies. In addition to PNNL, Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos national laboratories are participating in the program.
“We all want to make sure that first responders get good instruments,” McDonald says. “The worry is that technology that doesn’t do the job could cause a disaster.”