Firefighter Training, Firefighting, Hazmat, Health & Safety

Haz-Mat Survival Tips – Beyond the Rule of Thumb

Survival Tip 6 – Avoiding the Deadly Consequences of “RUSH-IN” Roulette

By Steven De Lisi

One of the best ways for first responders to avoid becoming part of the problem during any hazardous materials incident is by developing an incident action plan using the THINKING mode followed by either the ACTION mode or when necessary, the WAITING mode.

The Thinking Mode
Of all three modes, the THINKING mode must come first. The THINKING mode allows first responders to select correct and defensible tactics, as opposed to just taking action because they’ve always done it that way.

By THINKING, first responders avoid rushing in and engaging in actions they’ll later regret. The THINKING mode also allows first responders to decide if their actions will make a difference and to determine if there is an immediate threat. It allows first responders to identify the material and retrieve appropriate information from reliable sources. They know who to call for help and are not intimidated by those who would prefer to make decisions on their own with limited training and experience.

Whenever there is an immediate threat to public safety, the THINKING mode needs to progress promptly, but not carelessly. The ability of first responders to proceed promptly is influenced by knowing how to use the Emergency Response Guidebook effectively (not just knowing how to read it), knowing in advance about hazardous materials found in their community, and knowing who to call for help and how to reach them, especially after normal working hours, during weekends, or even on holidays.

While in the THINKING mode, first responders should assess the following:
¿ The material ¿ Health and fire hazards
¿ The container ¿ Pressure or non-pressure container
¿ The environment ¿ People and property
¿ Containers that have already released their contents
¿ Containers that have an on-going release
¿ Containers that have not released their contents (But that have the potential to do so!)

The Action Mode
The result of the THINKING mode will be an incident action plan, which should include incident strategies, tactics, and task assignments. With this plan in place, first responders can then progress to the ACTION mode. But remember, the ACTION mode should be used only when you know that these actions can be done safely and that they will make a difference!

Anytime first responders are in the ACTION mode, they are likely to be closer to the incident than they would be otherwise. The actions of first responders should be limited to their training and the equipment available to them. For example, those trained only to prevent a released material from spreading while wearing structural firefighter protective clothing should not attempt to stop a leak of a corrosive material from a cargo tank or close a valve on a leaking cylinder of chlorine.

The incident action plan should include answers to the following questions:
¿ What first responders plan to do? (Strategy)
¿ How first responders plan to do it? (Tactics)
¿ Who will do it? (Task Assignments)

The Waiting Mode
Whenever the results of the THINKING mode caution against action, then the opposite of the ACTION mode is the WAITING mode. Waiting means that first responders have determined that they can’t solve the problem alone, if at all, and that they need to wait for assistance or perhaps wait for the incident to stabilize on its own.

Assistance during a hazardous materials incident can include hazardous material teams, cleanup contractors, technical and legal advisors, and property owners. Regardless of who has been summoned to help, first responders in the WAITING mode have determined that any action they take will only make the situation worse or expose them to situations where benefits gained are outweighed by the potential risks.

Unfortunately, the concept of waiting is one that most first responders are probably the least comfortable with. It goes without saying that first responders are action-oriented and those who possess this personality trait are usually aggressive, determined, and willing to make sacrifices when necessary. They are the kind of people most emergency response organizations hope to recruit. Yet, when dealing with hazardous materials, this same aggressiveness and determination can get first responders along with many others killed or seriously injured.

If first responders decide to select the WAITING mode, it should be because:
¿ There is NO immediate threat and the incident is not getting any worse
¿ The incident IS getting worse and there is nothing they can do to stop it
¿ They realize that their actions could make the situation worse
¿ They recognize that they have done all they can with the resources available
¿ They have isolated and denied entry to any affected areas
¿ People in any affected areas are protected (evacuation / in-place protection)
¿ They have called the right people for assistance.

During a hazardous materials incident, first responders who use the THINKING mode will be better able to select correct and defensible tactics for the ACTION mode. They may also decide that instead of action, the WAITING mode may be more appropriate in order to avoid the deadly consequences of “RUSH-IN” Roulette. Be smart, be safe, and remember, everyone goes home!

Discussion Points
Select several incidents involving hazardous materials to which your department has responded. For each, consider the following:

1. Did first responders rush in without knowing what was involved or without an understanding of the potential hazards present? Did they take the time to THINK while developing an incident action plan? What were the outcomes?

2. Did first responders engage in ACTIONS during which their level of protective clothing (such as structural firefighter protective clothing) was inadequate? Did first responders who are not members of a hazardous material team perform tasks that exceeded their level of training, such as attempting to patch a leaking drum or operating valves on cargo tanks or storage cylinders containing hazardous materials? Did they attempt cleanup of spills of hazardous materials? What were the outcomes?

3. Did first responders ever decide to WAIT for help rather than attempt to solve a hazardous materials problem on their own? If they attempted to contact someone for assistance, did they know who to call and if they attempted this during the weekend or on a holiday, was there a delay in making the contact? Did any first responders complain about waiting for help to arrive because they did not want to “drag the incident out for hours?”

What were the outcomes?

For information on Steven DeLisi’s book Hazardous Materials Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response
go to:

Steven M. De Lisi is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and is currently Deputy Chief for the Virginia Air National Guard Fire Rescue located at the Richmond International Airport. De Lisi is a Hazardous Materials Specialist and chairman of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association’s Hazardous Materials Committee. He is also an adjunct instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs and a former member of the NFPA committee on hazardous materials protective clothing. De Lisi 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 and in that capacity provided on-scene assistance to first responders involved with hazardous materials incidents in an area that included more than 20 local jurisdictions