Hazmat Survival Tips: 10 Resolutions to be Better Prepared During 2011

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 59

By Steven De Lisi

At the start of every year, almost everyone makes resolutions pertaining to ways they can improve their life--resolutions to eat less and exercise more are common. Perhaps your resolution is to read a particular novel or to complete the requirements for a college degree. Regardless, every New Year’s resolution is intended to have a positive outcome.

After working with first responders tasked with dealing with hazardous materials incidents, my recommendation for a New Year’s resolution for 2011 is to be better prepared for these events. Although major events involving a hazardous material may be rare in a first responder’s career, minor incidents can quickly escalate into disasters if first-due companies handle them incorrectly. These “disasters” can include not only physical injury or death, but also unnecessary environmental exposure, excessive financial obligations, and legal liabilities that can cost thousands of dollars to defend and settle.

As a first responder, the public expects you to “be prepared.” Although considerable effort is made to train for structural firefighting, vehicle extrication, and emergency service calls, you must pay attention to some things that may be out of sight and out of mind but that have the potential to catch you off guard when you least expect it. Listed below are my suggested resolutions for 2011. Of course, there are many others, so remember to consider those things in your department and your community that involve hazardous materials and determine what you can do to be better prepared this year.  

1. Contact Your Local Emergency Management Official. This individual should have copies of material safety data sheets (MSDS) submitted by some local businesses as well as information on the type and quantity of chemicals stored. Unfortunately, much of this information never makes it to the front seat of your apparatus, and it does you no good if you discover during an incident at 3:00 a.m. that it’s locked up in a file cabinet at the emergency management office. You can learn a lot about the types of hazards you are likely to encounter and be better informed during a response, so it’s to your advantage to request copies of some of these MSDS that can be kept in a command vehicle or perhaps even on fire apparatus that have certain facilities in their first-due response district.    
2. Contact Local Public Works Officials. The public works department is a vital asset during any hazardous materials incident that involves migration of a chemical into storm water or sewer systems. Materials that enter storm drains can quickly travel undetected great distances, and it is imperative that you know the arrangement of pipes that lead from these drains. Other situations that can occur involve underground leaks of chemicals that enter cracked or broken pipes. Armed with information regarding the layout of the storm water or sewer system in your community, you are better able to act defensively to contain a release, such as might be the case if you are attempting to contain a spill of gasoline by placing absorbents or a floating boom at an outfall pipe that leads to a body of water. Although you may not always be able to obtain copies of these types of maps, just having an opportunity to review them before an incident will provide you with a better sense of the challenges you could face if there is a release involving these systems.
3. Visit Bulk Chemical Storage Facilities. Most of these types of facilities are safety conscious, but incidents do still occur; when they do, they can quickly escalate into major events. Learn about the materials’ characteristics, how they are stored, and how they are transferred and to what type of vehicles. Ask to review the facility’s emergency response plans. You may be surprised by what you read, as some plans are developed by outside consultants who may do nothing more than cut and paste a title to a “generic” response plan. Check to see when the plan was last revised and if there has ever been a drill to test the plan. Also check the phone numbers for facility contacts in the plan to make sure the numbers are still current. There is a big difference between having a plan on a shelf and having a realistic plan that will work when needed.
4. Contact Officials Who Operate Local Railroads and Pipelines. As with bulk chemical storage facilities, major incidents involving railroads and pipelines are rare, but they present a huge challenge to first responders when they do occur. If you have railroads or pipeline operations in your community, ask for a company representative to provide a brief overview of the operations and the emergency response plans. You can also learn how to protect yourself from harm during fire department operations near railroad tracks, such as how to warn approaching train crews of your presence. The same is true for underground utilities. You can learn a lot about how to prevent damage to these facilities if you ever decide to dig a retention basin with heavy equipment to contain a liquid spill during a hazardous materials incident.
5. Review Emergency Operations of Cargo Tanks. Contact companies that operate various types of cargo tanks. These companies may be in your community, or they may deliver products locally. Cargo tanks of interest include those that transport flammable liquids such gasoline and fuel oil, corrosive liquids, and compressed gases such as propane. Ask these company representatives if they would be willing to present a brief training program to department personnel on the hazards of products that are normally transported, how to operate emergency shutoff valves, and the hazards of their particular style of cargo tank, especially when involved in rollover crashes or fires.
6. Check Your Atmospheric Monitor. If your apparatus is assigned an atmospheric monitor, there are a number of things to consider. Of course, the most important is whether all personnel know how to correctly use the device. Many departments have limited opportunities to use their atmospheric monitors, making regular refresher training a must. Always document this training in writing with the signatures of the students and instructors along with the date and location where the training takes place. To ensure the accuracy of readings, check the unit’s last date of calibration and the date the next calibration is due. If the device uses disposable batteries, determine if fresh batteries are available in the monitor’s storage case. If the device uses a rechargeable battery, is there a procedure in place to ensure that the batteries are always ready? Is the procedure followed? Or is the battery often dead when you need it? If so, is there an option the manufacturer of the device can offer for quickly removing the rechargeable battery and installing a disposable battery?
7. Check Your Hazardous Materials Response Trailer. Many fire departments have opted to place equipment for hazardous material incidents on utility trailers. Although this approach often represents a cost-effective means for storing and transporting this equipment when needed, unlike apparatus in the fire station that get regular attention, utility trailers sometimes sit neglected out back behind the fire station. There may be times when equipment, such as shovels, rolls of plastic sheeting, or absorbent, is “borrowed” with the intention of replacing it. Unfortunately, the replacements never appear, and the missing equipment isn’t noticed until it’s too late. For some larger trailers that require electric brakes, regular exercise of the brake system by towing the trailer a few miles every week will decrease the chance of a mishap involving loss of control by a tow vehicle because of brake failure. During each exercise, check the operation of the “breakaway” battery that is intended to apply the trailer brakes should the trailer separate from the tow vehicle.
 8. Review the Current Edition of the Emergency Response Guidebook. No resolution to be better prepared to respond to a hazardous materials incident would be complete without a promise to review the current edition of the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). But don’t just go through the motions, looking up emergency response information based on a chemical name or product identification number. Instead, read all of the white pages so you can better understand how to use the emergency response information and how the information was developed. While you’re at it, review the content of transportation placards that include the color(s), symbols, and hazard class numbers. A copy of this book should be on every emergency response vehicle. It’s also a good idea to have a copy in your personal vehicle, especially if you are a volunteer firefighter whose department allows you to respond directly to incident scenes.   
9. Review NFPA 704, Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response. This standard is taught to almost every first responder during basic hazardous materials training. Unfortunately, it is not something that is widely used in many communities; as such, an awareness of how the identification system works can fade over time. Furthermore, unlike transportation placards that are included in the ERG for ready reference during an incident, there is no information in the ERG on the NFPA 704 standard. Therefore, it is imperative that first responders stay current on where these signs are used in their community and what the colors and numbers displayed mean.  

10. Resolve to Treat Every Incident as If It Involves a Hazardous Material. Whether it’s a rear-end collision on a highway during rush hour, an EMS call for difficulty breathing, or a trash fire, EVERY incident you respond to can involve hazardous materials. While operating at a vehicle crash scene, always check for leaks from the trunks of cars, trucks, and trailers. Use caution if applying water to a trash fire or dumpster fire doesn’t put the fire out or makes the fire more intense. If this happens, back up, isolate the area, deny entry, protect exposures, and accept the fact that there is more going on than you are prepared to deal with. Get help! Remember to ask patients who develop sudden medical problems such as difficulty breathing, rash, headaches, or nausea if they have been using or have otherwise been exposed to a chemical. Chances are if you fail to treat every incident as one that could involve hazardous materials, you may someday find yourself part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  

Questions or comments on this or any other monthly Hazardous Materials Survival Tip may be directed to Steven De Lisi at HazMatSurvivalTip@comcast.net.


Steven M. De Lisi recently retired from the fire service following a 27-year career that included serving as the deputy chief for the Virginia Air Guard Fire Rescue and a division chief for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). De Lisi is a hazardous materials specialist and as an adjunct instructor for VDFP. He continues to conduct hazardous materials awareness and operations-level training for fire suppression and EMS personnel. He began his career in hazardous materials response in 1982 as a member of the hazmat team with the Newport News (VA) Fire Department. Since then he has also served as a hazardous materials officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. In that capacity, he provided on-scene assistance to first responders dealing with hazardous materials incidents in a region that included more than 20 local jurisdictions. De Lisi holds a master’s degree in public safety leadership and is the author of the textbook Hazardous Material Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response (Fire Engineering, 2006)


Subjects: Hazardous materials response, firefighter hazmat training


Click here for more info on Steven De Lisi's book, Hazardous Materials Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response.

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