Firefighting, Hazmat

Haz-Mat Survival Tips: Beyond the Rule of Thumb

Survival Tip 10: Do You Really Know How to Use the Emergency Response Guidebook? Here’s a test to find out!

By Steven De Lisi

The latest edition of the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) was published in 2004 and was “developed jointly by Transport Canada, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Secretariat of Transport Communication of Mexico.” Referred to as ERG2004, its intent is to serve as a “guide to aid first responders in quickly identifying the specific or generic hazards of the material(s) involved in a [transportation incident involving dangerous goods] and protecting themselves and the general public during the initial response phase of the incident.”

The ERG is normally provided free of charge to local and state emergency service officials through individual state emergency management agencies. First responders should check with representatives of these agencies to determine the book’s availability.

The latest edition of the ERG should always be readily available in every vehicle operated by first responders. This includes vehicles of individuals from departments that have a protocol allowing them to respond from home directly to incidents.

Without a doubt, new and sophisticated computer software programs provide substantial amounts of information and are worthwhile additions to any first responder’s information arsenal, but there is no substitute for a handheld copy of the ERG2004. The fact is that the ERG2004 is a quick and easy-to-use reference source that can provide all first responders with valuable information that can save lives! However, the unfortunate reality is that due to the relative simplicity of the ERG2004 when compared to other reference sources, some may underestimate this value and also ignore the need to fully understand important details when using the ERG2004 to make critical decisions.

Most first responders probably know how to look up a material’s 3-Digit Guide (orange-bordered pages) using the ID Number Index (yellow-bordered pages) or the Name of the Material Index (blue-bordered pages), and they probably know that if an index entry is highlighted, then additional information is provided in the Table of Initial Isolation and Protective Action Distances (green-bordered pages). But there is a lot more to know regarding effective use of the ERG2004 BEFORE an incident occurs!

The following test contains 15 questions regarding your knowledge of the ERG2004. If you don’t know an answer, LOOK IT UP. Answers to each question are shown at the end of the test and include page number references for the correct response.

Before you begin, remember that you should always avoid removing copies of the ERG2004 from response apparatus for training and testing purposes. Someone will always forget to put it back where it belongs! Instead, purchase spare copies for use during these types of activities. Copies are available for sale from a number of vendors, including those found on the Internet. When using the ERG2004, be smart, be safe, and remember, everyone goes home!


  1. What are the characteristics required of materials listed in the Table of Initial Isolation and Protective Action Distances (green-bordered pages)?

  2. What does the letter “P” following a guide number in either the ID Number Index (yellow-bordered pages) or the Name of the Materials Index (blue-bordered pages) signify?

  3. What 3-Digit Guide (orange-bordered pages) should be used for ALL explosives except Explosives 1.4 (Explosives C)?

  4. When using the Table of Placards to determine the appropriate 3-Digit Guide (orange-bordered pages) to use, which guide should first responders use when multiple placards point to more than one guide, as when a vehicle displays both “Oxidizer” and “Corrosive” placards?

  5. Distances shown in the Table of Initial Isolation and Protective Action Distances (green-bordered pages) are those likely to be affected during the first __________ minutes after materials are spilled.

  6. When using the ERG2004, if a reference to a 3-Digit Guide (orange-bordered pages) cannot be found, and the incident is believed to involve dangerous goods [hazardous materials], which guide should first responders use until additional information becomes available?

  7. According to the ERG2004, “Shelter In-Place means people should seek shelter inside a building and remain inside until the danger passes.” However, when might “in-place protection” NOT be the best option to use?

  8. Materials found in the Table of Initial Isolation and Protective Actions Distances (green-bordered pages) are listed in what order?

  9. If an entry in either the ID Number Index (yellow-bordered pages) or the Name of the Materials Index (blue-bordered pages) is highlighted, first responders are instructed to look for the ID Number and Name of the Material in the Table of Initial Isolation and Protective Action Distances (green-bordered pages). However, what actions should first responders take regarding use of this table if there is a fire or if a fire is involved?

  10. In the Table of Initial Isolation and Protective Action Distances (green-bordered pages), why are the protective action distances separated for use during either “Day” or “Night” time periods?

  11. Each 3-Digit Guide (orange-bordered pages) describes “potential hazards” that a material may display in terms of fire/explosion and health effects upon exposure. Why do some 3-Digit Guides list “Fire/ Explosion” first while others list “Health” first?

  12. What statement do the publishers of the ERG2004 make to first responders regarding use of the ERG2004 at fixed facility locations?

  13. Hazard Identification Codes may be found in the top half of an orange panel on some intermodal bulk containers. Each code is a single digit that ranges from 2 ¿ 9. As an example, “7” indicates a “radioactivity” hazard while “8” indicates a “corrosivity” hazard. What is the significance of repeating the display of a digit (e.g. “33” instead of “3”) and preceding the code with the letter “X?”

  14. The ERG2004 states that when using the Table of Initial Isolation and Protective Action Distances (green-bordered pages), the distances shown may increase for worst case scenarios involving the instantaneous release of the entire contents of a package, such as a catastrophic accident. How can first responders estimate this increase in distance?

  15. The ERG2004 is a guide to assist first responders during the initial response phase of an incident involving dangerous goods [hazardous materials]. What is meant by the term “initial response phase?”

Answer Key


  1. Materials which are considered toxic by inhalation, including certain chemical warfare agents, or which produce toxic gases upon contact with water. (p. 295)

  2. The letter “P” following the 3-Digit Guide number in the yellow-bordered and blue-bordered pages identifies those materials which present a polymerization hazard under certain conditions. (p.2)

  3. Use Guide 112 for all explosives except for Explosives 1.4 (Explosives C). (p. 1)

  4. When using the Table of Placards to determine the appropriate 3-Digit Guide (orange-bordered pages), if multiple placards point to more than one guide, initially use the most conservative guide (i.e., the guide requiring the greatest degree of protective actions). (p. 15)

  5. 30 minutes (p. 295)

  6. Guide 111 (p. 1)

  7. In-place protection may not be the best option if (a) the vapors are flammable; (b) if it will take a long time for the gas to clear the area; or (c) if buildings cannot be closed tightly. (p. 298)

  8. Materials found in the Table of Initial Isolation and Protective Actions Distances are listed in numerical order by ID number. (p. 4)

  9. If there is a fire, or if a fire is involved, go directly to the appropriate 3-Digit Guide (orange-bordered pages) and use the evacuation information shown under “public safety.” (p. 24 and p. 96)

  10. In the Table of Initial Isolation and Protective Action Distances, the protective action distances are separated for use during “Day” or “Night” time periods since atmospheric mixing is less effective at dispersing vapor plumes during nighttime. (p. 299) Refer to page 4 for additional information on atmospheric conditions when using this table.

  11. Each 3-Digit Guide (orange-bordered pages) describes “potential hazards” that a material may display in terms of fire/explosion and health effects upon exposure. The highest potential is listed first. (p. 3)

  12. “Be mindful that there may be limited value in its [meaning the ERG2004] application at fixed facility locations.” (p. 2)

  13. Doubling of a digit indicates an intensification of that particular hazard. A hazard identification code prefixed by the letter “X” indicates that the material will react dangerously with water. (p. 20)

  14. For worst case scenarios involving the instantaneous release of the entire contents of a package, such as a catastrophic accident, the initial isolation and protective action distances may increase. The increase can be estimated by multiplying the distances by a factor of two (2). (p. 296)

  15. The “initial response phase” of an incident involving dangerous goods [hazardous materials] is “that period following arrival at the scene of an incident during which the presence and/or identification of dangerous goods [hazardous materials] is confirmed, protective actions and area securement are initiated, and assistance of qualified personnel is requested,.” (p. 2)

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

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.