Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 50
One afternoon, while executing a search warrant in a rural area, federal and state law enforcement officials made a surprising discovery. During their efforts to find stolen weapons thought to be hidden in a residence and other outbuildings located on several acres, they instead found what appeared to be a large number of chemicals stored in a building that had once served as a local general store. In addition to the unkempt nature of the storage and an accumulation of trash inside, the officers noticed labels on some of the containers indicating the presence of various hazard classes that included explosives and oxidizers. There were numerous other containers, many consisting of small plastic tubs, and most were unmarked. After a brief survey of the scene during which no weapons were visible, police officers left the building and notified the local fire department and state hazardous materials team.
At the time of the discovery, the situation appeared stable and, based on a conversation between local and state emergency management officials and the property owner, it was determined that no one had likely been inside the general store for a number of years. However, there were fears of what else could be stored in the building, and the only way to determine this would require digging though piles of trash. There was also considerable concern regarding the potential for an immediate threat to public safety should there be a fire at this location. If this were to occur, and even if firefighters arrived to find the building fully involved and thus setting up a defensive operation, they would likely not anticipate the presence of a large number of chemicals that could cause a massive explosion and produce toxic smoke far beyond that produced by a fire involving a one-story wood-frame structure. Anyone nearby would be in serious danger. This situation was an accident waiting to happen. The following photos of the building’s interior provide an indication of the challenges first responders faced.
Local fire officials learned that the person likely responsible for the contents of the building was now in federal prison and that he at one time had operated a business out of the general store that, among other things, bought and sold ingredients used to manufacture fireworks. Family members who owned the property and lived in the residence were apparently unaware of the activities that had taken place in the building and had no particular knowledge of any materials stored inside.
Officials from agencies representing local and state emergency management and environmental quality agencies and leaders of local fire and law enforcement departments decided that there was an imminent threat to public safety because of the variety, content, and condition of materials at the site. Included in this decision was the manner in which the materials were stored, which appeared to be disorderly, and the presence of a large amount of combustible material. As was stated earlier, this combination of conditions would likely accelerate fire spread should a fire occur and produce hazards to firefighters and the general public that would not normally be anticipated in a building of similar size, construction type, and location. By the conclusion of the meeting, it was decided to assess all explosives and chemical storage containers at the site and remove those found to be hazardous.
The family members agreed with the decision to remove all dangerous materials from the building, as they feared for their own safety and also did not want to be held liable for any damages incurred by others. However, they were unable to fund the removal and ultimate disposal of these materials. Therefore, a second meeting was held soon after the first, during which time financial responsibility for cleanup at the site passed to the locality. However, local government officials indicated that they, too, lacked the ability to pay for this operation, which would likely exceed $25,000 dollars. Their response was to declare a local disaster, which would then allow them to approach state officials regarding funding for cleanup. After brief deliberations with all the parties involved, it was determined that state funding would be used to pay for the services of both a cleanup contractor and a regional hazardous materials response team, and that a state environmental quality official would oversee the cleanup operation.
A cleanup contractor and the hazardous materials team planned to converge on the site the next day. Overnight, local law enforcement officials provided for security of the site, and local firefighters and EMS personnel were briefed as to the hazards present should they need to respond to the scene.
Throughout the cleanup process, an effort was made to segregate explosives from other chemicals and to determine which items qualified as “solid waste.” Items characterized as solid waste could be disposed of in the local landfill and would reduce cleanup costs. Also, a nearby military ordnance group removed all explosives from the site at no charge, thereby reducing cleanup costs by a considerable margin.
Those materials known or suspected of being hazardous chemicals were segregated by hazard class. This was a painstaking process which required diligence on the part of contractor employees: They had to stay alert for any “surprises” while handling unmarked containers of chemicals and had to always ensure their ability to keep their escape route clear of debris. As was noted in the photographs, this was not always an easy task. During all the times that the cleanup contractor was operating on-site, local fire department and EMS personnel were on standby and members of the regional hazardous materials team were readied as backup for the rescue of cleanup contractor employees, should that have become necessary.
After two days of activity during which more than 30 hours had been devoted to cleanup operations, state environmental officials declared the site safe. The only remaining task was to transport the containers to a treatment and disposal facility. During the cleanup, contractor employees removed more than 270 containers of chemicals with a total weight that exceeded 2,400 pounds. In addition to the chemicals, officials removed explosives consisting of signal flares, black powder, nitrocellulose flakes, and numerous small arms ammunition. A complete list of the chemical hazard classes removed is provided as Table 1.
As a result of the diligence of the first responders and the cooperation of personnel from law enforcement, fire, EMS, and emergency management agencies at the local, state, and federal levels, this incident was resolved with no mishaps and no injuries. The level of cooperation displayed also allowed for quick decisions on funding, which led to a timely cleanup of the site. Of critical importance to the success of this entire operation was that all of those involved had earlier established good working relationships through participation in local emergency planning committee meetings and training events. The ability to maneuver through what could have been a bureaucratic nightmare was the result of deliberate efforts to plan for such an event.
More important than money during any hazardous materials response and subsequent cleanup operation is the level of trust between all those involved. Always remember that this trust cannot be bought or sold, but must be earned over time.
As a result of this incident, none of those involved ever looked at abandoned buildings in rural areas as we had before. Through good fortune, we were alerted to this incident because of an unrelated criminal investigation, and we shudder to think what the outcome would have been had the building caught fire as a result of a lightning strike with serious exposures to responding firefighters and the public. The question is, how many buildings like this are in your area?
Questions or comments on this or any other monthly Hazardous Materials Survival Tip may be directed to Steven De Lisi at [email protected]
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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. 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. He has also served as a hazardous materials officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. De Lisi has a master’s degree in public safety leadership and is the author of Hazardous Material Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response (Fire Engineering, 2006).
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Subjects: Hazardous materials response, firefighter hazmat training