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Get expert backup for narcotics investigations with these tools

Chemical identification devices from Smiths Detection come with access to ReachBackID, a hotline to scientists for help to analyze and interpret data collected in the field

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Is it meth, heroin, fentanyl – or something else? Smiths Detection provides 24/7/365 customer support for its handheld chemical identification tools through its ReachBackID service, staffed by highly trained scientists.


Sponsored by Smiths Detection

By Rachel Zoch, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

So you’ve made a drug bust, and you’ve seized several baggies of unidentified pills and packets of white powder. These might be harmless, but they might also be Oxycontin, fentanyl or any number of other dangerous narcotics.

If your agency has equipped you with a portable chemical identification device, you can test the samples on site to help gather evidence and take added precautions against exposure to especially dangerous drugs like fentanyl.

If that device is one of the handheld identifiers from Smiths Detection, such as the ACE-ID or Target-ID, you also have access to a team of scientists on call 24/7 to help you figure out what you’re dealing with.


Smiths Detection provides 24/7/365 customer support for its bulk-level handheld identification tools through its ReachBackID service, staffed by highly trained scientists.

“If you’re using one of our products that is supported by ReachBackID, you can send in the data from that product at any time. We are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Hermes Huang, a senior scientist with Smiths Detection. “One of the scientists here will look at that data and give you an interpretation of what they see.”

Huang estimates that probably two-thirds of the ReachBackID calls he fields are for suspected narcotics cases, and he says that many times, the investigators are looking for confirmation of the readings and judgments they make in the field. Although the devices compare samples against libraries containing thousands of compounds to give officers an identification, ReachBackID scientists have access to a much larger library set of more than 100,000 substances, as well as years of scientific expertise.

“We’re looking at the data coming back from the product, and in our computers we have more extensive libraries than are stored in the portable devices,” said Huang. “We also have a lot of different ways we can process and manipulate the data to go beyond what the onboard algorithms on the instruments can do. Finally, there is a human experience factor – for components with very small spectral features, sometimes it comes down to a judgment call on whether it is significant or it is an artifact created out of noise and spectral manipulations. Everyone on the ReachBackID team has a lot of experience doing spectral interpretation and can lean on that experience to make these calls.”


Investigators using Smith Detection instruments to gather data from a sample may decide that they want more information than the device provides. Whether they want confirmation of what the instrument tells them or an additional set of eyes – or if the tool provides a result they don’t really understand – they can reach out to ReachBackID for assistance. Years of experience also allow ReachBackID scientists to identify sample components at levels too low for instrument algorithms to recognize.

The investigator simply downloads the data off of the instrument or exports it to a USB drive and emails it to ReachBackID. That’s all the scientists need, but any additional information can help them provide a more detailed assessment. Providing a callback number also helps speed up the response.

“We will make use of any information the user chooses to give us,” said Huang. “For example, whether it’s a solid or liquid, color of the sample, conditions – because all of those may factor into our assessment of what that sample is.”

The system provides an automatic response that includes a number the user can call if it’s an emergency (or in the middle of the night). This will start the ReachBackID process immediately. A ReachBackID scientist then studies the data and compares it against the libraries. Most of the time, they are able to respond to the user’s query within an hour.

Whenever a data file comes in, Huang says, the goal is to have a verbal response for the customer within an hour.

“It depends on the sample that they send in and how complicated it gets, but within an hour we will always call the customer and at least let them know where we are if we don’t have a full assessment yet,” he said. “Sometimes it’ll take longer, but we’ll at least call you and let you know where we stand, what we see. And if there are any pressing questions at that point, we can try to address them as quickly as we can.”

In addition to the verbal report, ReachBackID also provides a written report for each query with detailed results and spectral comparison. This will be emailed to the user and can be added to the case file and used as evidence in court just like any other lab results. In fact, Smiths Detection scientists occasionally have been called upon to testify in court.

But the ReachBackID analysis is not meant to be definitive, cautions Huang.


ReachBackID provides added information to help investigators make decisions in the field, but it isn’t a simple yes-or-no result.

“My report is always going to be, ‘This is what I see based off of the spectral information that you’re giving me. These are the spectral peaks that I see, this is what it’s consistent with within the library,’” said Huang. “I have to be very careful, because at the end of the day, this is just one piece of information that they’re going to be using to try to make a judgment on what a sample is and how to deal with it.”

Although the information from ReachBackID is not 100% definitive for legal purposes, the scientist on call will point out similarities to help identify the substance in question. Some results are clearer than others. Huang says heroin has a distinctive spectral pattern, but precursors – the building blocks of drugs like meth or cutting agents for other narcotics – and synthetic cannabinoids can be especially difficult to pinpoint.

“The precursors can get a little tricky because there can be a lot of them. There’s also a lot of impurities, and with a lot of those you end up with just these long chemical names that really might not mean too much to an investigator,” said Huang. “I see this often with synthetic cannabinoids, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is because there’s so many different ways these compounds can be built. The most we can say is that it’s consistent with this family of compounds rather than pinpointing an exact one.”

Huang says he is careful to keep the investigator’s needs in mind and present information that they can use. He also says that most investigators are using more than one tool to identify a substance, so the added analysis from ReachBackID is just one piece of info used to make the overall decision.

“A lot of the narcotics – heroin, cocaine, so on – they have very distinct spectra, and there’s basically nothing else that will look like that. So then we say that there’s a good correlation with a library entry of the heroin,” he said. “And in the email report that we generate, we’ll actually do an overlay where we show what’s in the library and what they collected and allow them to visually make a judgment for themselves.”

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ReachBackID scientists use software to scan libraries for spectra with similar features as the sample under investigation. These are compared against the original sample spectrum to make sure the combination makes sense before being reported to the user.

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Huang recommends several strategies for a more successful experience using chemical identification tools and the ReachBackID service:

1. Be sure to clean the testing surface between samples.

It’s very easy to spot on the spectra if the sampling surface started out with something on it,” said Huang. “In between samples, you need to make sure you’ve cleaned off the first sample. Otherwise that becomes a background contribution to the next one, and now we have more peaks that we need to evaluate.”

2. The more information you can provide, the better.

“Certainly we get a lot of emails where all that we’re given is the data file, and that’s fine,” said Huang, “but if there’s any other information – just whether it’s a solid or liquid, what color, what it looks like, what the situation is – if there’s additional information, we will make use of it to help narrow down what the sample might be, so it’s always useful to have.”

3. Provide a call back number for faster response.

“If we don’t have a number to call, obviously we can’t call with a response,” said Huang. “We can write the email report and email it out, but that takes a little longer than just calling someone and telling them what we see.”

Visit Smiths Detection for more information.

Read Next: How to identify narcotics and other suspected threats quickly and accurately

Rachel Zoch is a branded content project lead for Lexipol, where she has written about public safety products and issues important to police, fire, EMS and corrections since 2015. A University of Texas journalism graduate, she previously worked the copy desk of a local daily newspaper and served as managing editor of a trade magazine for the multifamily housing industry.