Laser from Pinellas defense contractor might detect danger of fentanyl

A defense contractor says its invention may save law enforcement lives.

LARGO, Fla. -- There’s been a growing number of reports lately about the dangers of fentanyl - a narcotic so strong that just coming in contact with it can be fatal.

Now, a defense contractor in Pinellas County might have come up with answer that could help local law-enforcement avoid that deadly danger.

When Largo-based defense contractor Alakai Defense Systems first came up with its portable laser system, they designed it to help the military detect explosives and chemical weapons. 

But that same technology, which can be used to decipher chemicals just by pointing a laser beam at a substance, might also tell officers if the drugs they’re about to come in contact with are deadly. 

“We were really surprised. We spoke with local law enforcement about bomb detection, figuring it would be some interest,” said Ed Dottery, Alakai’s President and CEO, “And they asked us, 'Can you detect fentanyl?' Part of the opioid crisis.”

Fentanyl is so dangerous the DEA recently made a video warning local police departments about its potency.

In May, Ohio police officer Chris Green needed four doses of Narcan when he barely came in contact with it. 

“Yes, from simply touching that and or inhaling,” said Green.

Last year, 11 officers in Connecticut had to be treated for fentanyl exposure during a drug bust. In June, a 10-year-old boy in Miami died after accidentally coming in contact with it. 

“We realize this is a big concern for officer safety,” said St. Petersburg Police spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez.

Fernandez says the department recently purchased $20,000 worth of gloves, masks and goggles and other equipment to protect their officers.

A few months ago, the police department got a similar demonstration from Alakai. They liked the technology and the concept, said Fernandez, “But it was a bit too large. And it was very expensive. So, we need something a little bit smaller, something that we can get to a scene quickly and that we could purchase in more quantities.”

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, which has also gotten a demonstration, agreed. And in Manatee County, where there’s been an explosion in opioid abuse, the sheriff’s office says they’re looking at several devices, but aren't ready to purchase anything just yet. 

Alakai says it's heard the feedback and they're working on it. So far they have evolved from a 600-pound unit to a 37-pound backpack, and eventually hope to get it down to a handheld unit weighing about seven pounds.

Alakai also knows local law enforcement agencies don't have Department of Defense sized budgets, but they remain laser-focused on what everyone agrees is a major problem. 

“If somebody can get us funding,” said Dottery, “I think we could get an early prototype in 18 months.”

Alakai says it needs about $1 million to build a handheld prototype. They've already seen interest from the Department of Homeland Security. And the TSA has told them the units might be useful at airport checkpoints as well. 

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