This black box developed in Richland may be vital if you’re in an accident

Grant Tietje has seen a lot of people needing medical help — first in his 10 years as a paramedic, then during his 20-year career as a Seattle police officer.

There have been highway pileups, mass stabbings and dozens of other times when a small black box being developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory would have helped him monitor all of the patients at a scene.

“I went to a couple of bus accidents over the years, and for some moments in time, you have far more patients than you have medics,” said Tietje, the senior program manager for public safety and emergency management at the lab in Richland.

The device, called a VitalTag was developed by a team led by data scientist Luke Gosink.

It’s about the size of the box on a laptop charger and has a small clip that attaches to the the patient’s finger. Through that sensor it tracks a patient’s pulse, blood pressure, temperature, respiration, oxygen levels and how close they are to going into shock.

It sends that information to a computer or a tablet, allowing the first people on the scene to keep track of dozens of patients, and all for about $20 worth of components.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security asked the lab to build it with components already available. The U.S. Department of Energy’s lab is operated by Battelle.

The demonstration model straps around a person’s chest but they are already working on the second generation of the device, which will be a bendable bar with adhesive on the back that will attach directly to the chest.

It’s a solution that arose from pleas from first responders who dealt with more than 180 injured people when two pressure-cooker bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

“They needed something that would more effectively process larger numbers of people and to keep an eye out for people who are rapidly deteriorating, or for people who they thought were in a bad state, but who are stable,” he said.

Most ambulances carry equipment that can do the same things, but generally only for one or two people at a time, Tietje said.

The price and the size of the new device make it so an ambulance or police car could carry several of them to attach to patients.

This would amplify how much a single team would be able to monitor during an emergency, including bus crashes on a rural highway or in a shelter during a natural disaster.

An image showing the second generation of the VitalTag being developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The device is will be a bendable and will be stuck directly to a persons chest. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The way Tietje imagines it, the first person on the scene would attach a VitalTag to every patient.

That information would be broadcast both to the medics on the scene, but also to the hospital. It would even provide people a map of where all of the patients are located.

“If it’s dark and it’s raining and chaotic, I can look at my phone and tell it’s the person over there on the southeast corner that needs help,” he said.

The lab is working with occupational medicine company AnovaWorks to confirm the equipment works, said officials. AnovaWorks runs the lab’s healthcare clinic.

Information from those tests will help as the lab find a private company to take the project through it’s remaining steps.

Work on the device started about a year and a half ago. The laboratory is shopping it around to medical companies who will take it through the remaining steps to bring it to the hands of first responders. This includes getting it approved the by Food and Drug Administration.

“To come as far as it has is a testament to the team who have just gone above and beyond the call of duty,” Gosink said.

Cameron Probert: 509-582-1402; Twitter: @cameroncprobert