Along with their M-16 rifles and canteens, some U.S. combat troops in the Persian Gulf war carried some unusual life-saving gear into battle with them: live chickens and parakeets.
The birds were used as an early warning system in case of an Iraqi chemical or biological weapons attack. The birds were said to feel the effects of chemicals quicker than humans, so if the birds became ill or suddenly died, the soldiers were to don their gas masks and protective clothing.
John R. Spelman has nothing against chickens, but he thinks he has a better system for alerting troops in such emergencies.
Mr. Spelman is president of Environmental Technologies Group Inc. (ETG), a Towson-based company that has developed a small electronic device -- about the size of a pack of cigarettes -- that can pick up the slightest trace of nerve or blister agents in the air.
"It's a very exciting little item," Mr. Spelman says of the device, which is designed to be attached to a soldier's harness belt where it crosses on the chest. "It was deployed for the first time in Desert Storm."
When the units, called Individual Chemical Agent Detectors or ICADs, pick up a trace of nerve gas, the soldier is warned by a flashing red light on top of the device and by a horn that sounds off with repetitious beeps.
ICADs are designed to take the physical abuse of soldiers crawling along the ground, Mr. Spelman said. They have a maintenance-free life span of about four months.
The ETG executive said that development activity got hectic at the company's Taylor Avenue manufacturing plant as the United States began its buildup of forces in the Persian Gulf.
The Marine Corps had been considering the ICAD for some time, but suddenly its interest escalated, he said.
"We were working seven days a week, 12 hours a day to build a prototype and get it ready for production," Mr. Spelman said.
"We got about 500 of them over there before the war ended," he said, noting that the company only now has geared up for full-scale production. "Starting in April, we should be producing 700 or 800 a month."
ETG was awarded an $11.9 million contract by the Marine Corps to manufacture the units.
While most of the larger defense contractors in the state, including Martin Marietta Corp., AAI Corp. and Westinghouse Electric Corp., have been laying off workers, Mr. Spelman says his company has been hiring.
Since January 1990, he said, the company has added about 150 employees, bringing its work force to about 370. Before the year ends he expects the company to hire another 40 to 50 workers.
Mr. Spelman served as president of the Towson business in the 1980s when it was owned by Allied Corp. -- now Allied-Signal Inc. -- which took over the former Bendix Corp. operation as part of the infamous Martin Marietta-Bendix corporate takeover battle of 1982.
Mr. Spelman explained that in September 1988 when Allied was planning to sell the Taylor Avenue factory he and two other managers formed a partnership and acquired the facility. It is still privately owned.
He said that sales are expected to total between $35 million and $45 million this year and that the firm has a backlog of more than $100 million in military business. "We're in a strong financial position," he said, but he declined to discuss the company's profitability.
"Our military business is expected to remain stable for the next five to 10 years," he said. "It will be our bread and butter."
The Defense Department currently accounts for about 95 percent of Environmental Technologies' business. Like a lot of other defense contractors, ETG is looking to expand its operations into commercial or industrial markets.
One of its industrial products is a hydrogen fluoride detector that is being used by Exxon Corp. at an oil refinery in Canada.
The small nerve gas detector is just one of ETG's products for the military. The company produces another hand-held unit that is used by the military in cleaning up areas contaminated by chemical agents.
Called a Chemical Agent Monitor (CAM), the unit works something like a Geiger counter. As a soldier moves the CAM across the ground the unit will detect the presence of nerve or blister agents and give a reading on the concentration of the chemicals.
In the past, Mr. Spelman said, the military has given a low priority to chemical agent detectors while spending money on things like tanks and jet fighters. "This is changing."