The results came back in less than a minute from the time Lt. Scott Bireley placed the baggie of drugs in front of the scanner.
A smartphone-size screen on the handheld machine revealed the answer: The county detective was handling heroin.
At the Haverford Township Police Department, Bireley demonstrated on Wednesday how quickly and effectively that laser detection machine, called a Progeny ResQ analyzer, can identify drugs, including some of the most lethal opioids, such as the painkiller fentanyl and the elephant tranquilizer carfentanil.
Delaware County has become the first government in the Philadelphia region to purchase the device, which costs about $50,000, District Attorney John J. Whelan said.
“There is nothing more important than the safety of our officers,” Whelan said, “and today is about making them safer.”
Officers can accidentally overdose and even die from contact with opioids if they don’t know which type they are dealing with, officials said. Even small amounts of drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil can injure or kill someone if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
The analyzing device was purchased as a preventive measure. No officers have accidentally overdosed in Delaware County, Whelan said, but incidents have been reported in other parts of the region as the number of opioid arrests rises.
County officials announced the purchase less than a week after President Trump declared the nation’s opioid epidemic a public health emergency. In Delaware County alone, 162 people have died from opioid overdoses this year.
The money for the device will come from the county’s forfeiture funds or funds available through the area’s federal designation as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, Whelan said, and no taxpayer dollars will be used.
The machine will be used primarily by narcotics officers in the county’s criminal investigations division, but it will also be available for other uses. Not only can it detect drugs, officials said, but it can also identify explosive devices.
The introduction of the device also came with a new police protocol in Delaware County. Whelan said officers will no longer field-test heroin, in order to prevent accidental exposure to fentanyl or carfentanil. The county has also recommended that all squad cars in the county be equipped with protective gloves and masks.
Fentanyl is said to be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin and 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, while carfentanil is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. Local law enforcement officials have seen a rise in the use of both.
Deaths by fentanyl almost doubled nationally from 2015 to 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And fentanyl was found in more than half of Pennsylvania’s 2016 overdose deaths, according to a report by the Philadelphia division of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the University of Pittsburgh.
Last month, authorities in Montgomery County announced the seizure of about two pounds of fentanyl, one of the largest such busts in county history. A week earlier, four people were indicted after New Jersey’s largest fentanyl bust uncovered nearly 100 pounds of the drug in North Bergen and Willingboro.
Carfentanil, which is often used to sedate large animals, has been linked to a small but rising number of deaths, several of which have been reported in Pennsylvania.
Carfentanil was believed to have been present in the systems of two Philadelphia men who died of overdoses in December and June. Last week, a medical examiner in Western Pennsylvania determined that a 1-year-old girl died after accidentally being exposed to the drug.
Like other local governments, Delaware County has taken an aggressive stance on opioids, and in September it became the first county in Pennsylvania to sue opioid manufacturers.
“Our first responders are on the front line in the battle,” County Councilman David J. White said, “and we want to make sure they are protected if and when they come into contact with these incredibly deadly opioids.”