Firefighting, Fireground Management

Environmental Preincident Intelligence

By Eric G. Bachman

Preincident intelligence is a vital resource that enables a fire department to recognize hazards and reduce some of the unknowns before an emergency. Its importance cannot be overvalued; it directly affects incident operations and outcomes. The saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link” relates to intelligence. A piece of preincident information unknown by crews will likely be the catalyst for deteriorating conditions.


Target Hazards

The term “target hazard” is offered in many fire service reference guides and is used to describe certain hazards in a community. Stereotypes include large, complex, and high-visibility facilities or those with high occupancy and content loads. Certainly, these examples present response challenges. However, do not discount other circumstances that can be affected or be a catalyst for worsening conditions. In my article, “Preplanning Utility Target Hazards” (Fire Engineering, November 2004), I suggest that If it can catch fir, release or contain a hazardous materials, affect the environment, or collapse or harm your firefighters, it is a target hazard. If it will overwhelm your resources, expose your limitations, or exploit a deficiency, it is a target hazard. This definition is intended to be broad and include nonstructural circumstances that can challenge emergency operations or sustain devastating losses including environmental aspects.



Environment is a broad definition and one that is often overlooked in preplanning. In simplest terms, environment is the surroundings. These circumstances may be considered a lesser hazard, but the consequences of not considering or protecting environmental constituents can be significant. Examples of environmental elements are often stereotyped as wooded areas, parks, lakes, and streams. The fire department’s disposition can affect environmental regard. A fire department in an urban area may not consider its district being at risk for environmental emergencies because of its built-up character. A fire department that protects a heavily industrialized area also may not readily anticipate environmental emergencies that could result from releases and runoff. Regardless of a fire department’s disposition or its perception of environmental impacts within their jurisdiction, it must be cognizant of circumstances that will influence or contribute to an environmental emergency.

Environmental examples are wide-ranging and locale specific. This article will focus on natural (photo 1) and man-manipulated conduits and other circumstances that may spark review of jurisdictional features.

(1) Photos by author.  


Incident Ramifications

Circumstances often not included or adequately noted in structural target hazard preincident data sheets are environmental considerations such as runoff conduits (natural and man-made), water collections, and dispersion mediums. While caught up in the firefight, there may be little or no regard for runoff from those efforts resulting in environmental contamination or other destructive repercussions. The ramifications and costs to remediate the environmental damage may be costlier than the structural damages caused by the fire.

In August 2004, a plant nursery fire in Pennsylvania led first-arriving units to find a well-involved structure on fire including the pesticide storage area. Water streams were trained on the building to quench the fire; this caused runoff into a nearby stream resulting in dead fish. Subsequent resources such as the county hazardous materials team, heavy equipment, and environmental cleanup contractors were called mitigate further runoff into the environmentally sensitive waterway. Despite the fire department’s efforts, the fire destroyed the building. Had the building been left to burn and the contents consumed by the fire, the environmental impact would have been minimized.

Incident commanders must carefully determine the best course of action. Not intervening and allowing a fire to run its course may be prudent to lessen the environmental impact, which can involve expensive remediation beyond the costs of replacing a building.

Environmental emergencies are not always the result of a fire. Vehicle crashes, system malfunctions, and container failures can also result in significant environmental emergencies. Understanding circumstances that will influence the progression of an environmental emergency is necessary. Although it is impossible to conceive every possible environmental scenario, a fire department can better prepare itself through preincident intelligence for man-made and natural conduits. Identifying these conduits and understanding the potential consequences will significantly enhance incident operations.


Man-Made Conduits

Identify runoff conduits, specifically for storm water (photo 2) and their destinations along transportation corridors as well as on fixed facilities properties (photo 3).




Storm water management is usually engineered into fixed facility and transportation corridor construction projects. Identify these mediums to address not only fire runoff but for incidents such as fuel spills or other material container ruptures. Man-made conduits may include a labyrinth of underground piping systems to facilitate storm water (or other liquid products) to an outfall medium such as a treatment facility, a river, or a stream. Understanding where storm drains are located as well as where they lead (photo 4) will be important when faced with a spill. Most often, you will not have the benefit of having the storm drain outfall labeled.




In May 2003 in Pennsylvania, a fuel pump at a retail gas station malfunctioned, spilling an unspecified amount of gasoline. The contour of the property facilitated product flowing into the parking lot of a nearby apartment complex (photo 5) and into a storm drain. Where does the product go once it is in the storm drain? Note that the applied material on the ground in the photos was a sand/absorbant material that reinforces the size and flow of the product. The fire department was able to obtain maps of the piping system which allowed them to monitor product extension and prevent its inevitable outfall to the river. A lesson learned from this facility incident was to have the storm water maps readily available so you do not have to wait for a public works representative.



The more built up a community becomes, the more effort and medium are concentrated to minimize water runoff from rain storms. Retention basins (photo 6) are designed to direct storm water into a collection area where the water will then be absorbed into the ground.


Natural Conduits

Natural conduits such as swales, channels, natural valleys, or other earthen contours will contribute to the flow of materials. Natural conduits can also significantly influence the parameters of flow of a spilled material as well as affect the ability of emergency personnel to access and mitigate the incident. Spills or ruptures can occur anywhere from any source.

Underground pipelines can be breached, and product flow will follow the downhill terrain. The physical contour may contribute to an expanding incident. In November 2000 in Pennsylvania, a bulldozer excavating a driveway for a new home struck an underground pipeline (see my article “Pipeline Rupture: A Case Study,” Fire Engineering, April 2001) resulting in a 40,000-gallon release of diesel fuel. Extreme terrain variations can act as a catalyst to promote fluid flow to a waterway as well as increase the rate in which the material flows.


Product Identification

A critical element in any response to a hazardous spill or release is defining and confirming what the product is. The physical and chemical properties of the agent will dictate the most effective defensive actions to take as well as the necessary personal protective equipment that that responders should  donn. Characteristics such as specific gravity (will the product sink or float in water?) will influence dam construction. Recognizing flammability limits and monitoring will support protective actions against a potential fire. The list goes on and on, and it is chemical dependent.



A vital tool for any emergency response is having available or knowing where to get the needed resources. Environmental incidents may require many resources that the fire department may not carry or have readily available. A large quantity of booming material or absorbents may be necessary to confine a spill. Other supporting materials such as piping for damming or diverting mediums may not be immediately available.

Fire departments do well with handling vehicle fuel spills. However, it only takes one extraordinary incident to tax your resources. Not identifying resources and processes for procuring those resources in a timely manner will hamper your efforts. It is vital to maintain a current resource listing and ensure that you can obtain those resources at any time of the day (or night). An important aspect of resource identification and allocation that you must address before an incident is cost. You cannot delay identifying a special resource and having a procedure to obtain it when it is needed because of a debate over who is going to pay for it. Address this prior to an incident.

RELATED: Donohue on Fuel Spill ResponseKastros on Hazmat 101De Lisi on Hazmat Survival Tips

Where can you get a truckload of sand at three o’clock in the morning? Where and how can you procure a large quantity of foam? The list goes on, but preincident intelligence requires attention to many other facets outside of fixed facility floor plans and physical features.


Other Considerations

You must consider many circumstances that may happen in environmental emergencies. Local conditions and situations may not have been addressed in this article, but some common aspects follow:

Downstream users. For spills in waterways, who are the downstream water users, and where are their intakes (photo 7)? Develop notification procedures and preincident plans to protect intakes in the case of a spill.

Access. Regardless of the environmental venue, it is important to evaluate access locations and what vehicles or methods may be needed. It is also important to evaluate any size restrictions such as height, weight, and width that would prohibit access to specific areas. Finally, consider the makeup of the access path, its condition, and any circumstances that may prohibit certain vehicle access.



Information Sources

Ascertaining environmental information may not be as easy as gathering fixed facility intelligence. Query other organizations for information on environmental venues. Your local emergency management agency may have information on watersheds and other environmentally sensitive areas. State environmental departments may also provide information on water users and other details specific to your environmental situation. Municipal authorities such as water and sewer departments may have maps and other details of piping and outfall areas. Transportation officials, may also be useful with drainage information and maps from roadways. It is important to research environmental circumstances.

Fire department preparedness is not exclusive to fixed facilities. Environmental emergencies can present complicated circumstances with destructive ramifications. Make natural and man-made venues and conduits a part of fire department district intelligence. Fire officials must look outside of the “structural” box and prepare for “outside” emergencies. It only takes one unrealized incident situation to humble a fire department preparedness program and affect its reputation and credibility.


ERIC G. BACHMAN, CFPS, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.