Back in 2005, the U.S. military needed a tool that wasn't in its arsenal. Command was sending troops out to shut down Iraq’s chemical plants for fear the contents could be used by insurgents, but there was no quick, inexpensive way for the troops to detect hazardous chemical spills. There were plenty of detection systems to notify soldiers and Marines of deadly concentrations of nerve gas but not dangerous concentrations of industrial chemicals.
That's when the military approached Virginia Beach-based Morphix Technologies asking for a solution. At the time Morphix was primarily focused on making chemical detection systems for industry.
Morphix repurposed its color-change alert material into an easily used multi-threat detector called the Chameleon that could be strapped onto the arm of a warfighter. And the military had a new tool.
Very quickly, management at Morphix realized that there might be other markets for the Chameleon, including public safety. Unlike a lot of tools developed for the military, the Chameleon was not cost prohibitive. So public safety agencies could afford it.
And they needed it. The rise of amateur methamphetamine production nationwide and transportation of hazardous materials was placing cops and firefighters in more and more situations where they were being exposed to toxic chemicals on the job.
"Any police officer could be the first one to respond to an accident where a tractor-trailer is tipped over and it's leaking," says Kimberly Chapman, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Morphix Technologies. "Most of these officers don’t have any kind of chemical detection equipment. Agencies can't afford to give them $10,000 chemical detection units that sit in the trunks of their cars and may never be used."
Agencies can buy an awful lot of Chameleon units for $10,000. Chapman says list price for the basic Chameleon kit, including the armband and enough cassettes for five incidents, is $195.
The Chameleon is also very easy to use. Chapman says any officer can learn how to set up and monitor the Chameleon by watching a six-minute video. In addition, the company has just developed a new training kit to meet customer demand.
"When we would go in to speak with clients, the first thing they would ask us would be: 'Do you have anything that will set these off so we can show our officers what to look for?'" says Chapman.
That left Morphix with a problem. There was really only one way to demonstrate the color-change alert technology of Chameleon cassettes and that was to expose them to chemicals. But releasing chemicals in a training room at the concentration needed to trigger the color change is not a good idea.
"You'd stink up the room or you'd put the officers in an environment that would be unpleasant, even if it wasn't toxic," Chapman says. "We wanted something more low key that would show how the Chameleon actually works but not put people at risk or be a process that would require a half day to set up."
Morphix decided the solution was to create a training cassette that would react to being exposed to smelling salts, ammonia hydroxide. All the instructor has to do is snap open an ampule of smelling salts and wave it under the training cassette to show the students the color change. The training kits are now available. Chapman says the price per training cassette is about $3.
The Chameleon is not intended to replace more sophisticated chemical detection equipment used by hazmat teams, according to Chapman. That was never Morphix's goal for the technology.
"It gives a huge level of protection to first responders who just need to know if a toxic chemical is present," she says. "If it is present they can get out of there and call hazmat. They don’t need to know the exact concentration. The goal is to prevent them from getting exposed and injured."