Hazmat Survival Tips: Equipment Concerns for First Responders

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 43

By Steven De Lisi

Your fire station is dispatched to a report of a diesel fuel leak from a tractor trailer. Arriving on-scene as the officer with the first-due engine, you discover that the truck attempted to make a sharp turn in a shopping center parking lot. While doing so, the bottom of the fuel tank struck the concrete curb of a median causing a gash about three inches in length. As a steady stream of fuel spills from the tank, you notice it traveling toward a nearby storm drain. You know that the drain leads to a creek behind the shopping center, which in turn leads to a major waterway a few miles downstream. As a first responder trained to the operations level, you know that your role is to attempt to contain the spilled diesel fuel and, if possible, prevent its migration to the creek.

You immediately call your communications center and request that your department’s hazardous materials equipment trailer be brought to the scene. You’re particularly proud of this vehicle because the trailer and most of the supplies it contains were purchased with funds obtained from a grant application that you wrote. It has everything a first responder could want–booms, absorbent pads, round-point shovels for digging, PVC pipes for underflow dams1, and inflatable containment pools to contain runoff water should it become necessary to decontaminate firefighters.

It will take some time for the trailer to arrive at the scene, so you begin preparations to protect the storm drain from the approaching fuel. Your plan is to remove some soil from the nearby median and construct a berm around the drain cover. You then reach into the tool compartment next to the hosebed on the engine but find only a square-point shovel for use during overhaul of structure fires. Using this shovel, you attempt to dig up some soil from the median, but several months of extremely dry weather have created conditions that have caused the soil to resemble concrete.

You begin to reach for the five-gallon container of granular absorbent on the engine, only to find it empty. Then you remember that your station had exhausted its supply of 50-pound bags of absorbent on a recent motor vehicle accident involving a leaking fuel oil delivery truck. Because of reduced budgets and increased financial paperwork, the absorbent you ordered following that call has yet to be received.

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One of the members of your crew then suggests that the soil on the banks of the creek may be softer than that in the median and that you should, therefore, abandon efforts at the storm drain and instead try building an underflow dam. Even though this containment would be farther from the point of release, you would at least minimize the amount of fuel entering the major waterway. But you need the PVC pipe on the hazardous materials trailer, which should have already been on-scene. You ask the dispatcher for the trailer’s ETA; she replies that although e two people are at the station with pickup trucks equipped with receiver hitches, no one can find the ball mount for the trailer. Just then you remember that, as a security feature, you locked the ball mount inside the trailer and placed the key in the top drawer of the desk in the captain’s office. Unfortunately, no one at the station can find the key, so you tell them to cut the lock. Now they have to find a bolt cutter.

As the spilled diesel fuel reaches the creek, you notice that it is beginning to rain. A few minutes later, the rain washes the remainder of the spilled fuel into the creek. If there had not been a delay in the response of the equipment trailer, you may have had time to build the underflow dam. If you would have had the proper tools and supplies, you would have been able to build the desired berms. Despite your best intentions, you failed to achieve your objective of containing this diesel fuel spill to the smallest area possible. Could this series of missteps have been prevented? Could first responders have achieved a better outcome?

First, let’s consider the equipment on the engine. The use of berms made of soil has long been an effective means of containing chemical spills, most notably fuel spills that occur during motor vehicle accidents. Yet, the ability to effectively dig up and move soil is sometimes easier said than done because of soil conditions and the distance from the spill to where the soil is located. To facilitate using soil when building berms, apparatus that respond first out on these types of calls should be equipped with at least two round-point shovels and a pick mattock for loosening hard soil. At least two empty five-gallon plastic buckets should be available as a means to carry soil over long distances.

Regarding the need for PVC pipe to build an underflow dam, rather than wait for your department’s hazardous materials equipment trailer to arrive, remember that most engines have at least two large pipes readily available– the hard suction hoses. Many successful underflow dams have been built using this type of hose. Although they most times are used for incidents involving spilled hydrocarbon fuels, they can be easily cleaned with soap and water if contaminated. The unfortunate reality is that too many of those who teach hazardous materials operations training rely on PVC pipe for underflow dams as if they had stock in the companies who manufacture this product.Although they completely ignore the availability of the hard suction hose, you should not. Figure 1 shows construction of an underflow dam.

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In the described scenario, the fire station had exhausted its supply of granular absorbent and was patiently waiting for more to be delivered. Based on your department’s procurement process, this could take some time. Here’s a better approach.

During almost any incident when large quantities of your granular absorbent inventory are deployed, there will likely be a commercial cleanup contractor at the scene who will remove the contaminated absorbent along with contaminated soil and any free product that remains. These companies normally respond with large quantities of granular absorbent; so before leaving the scene, request that the contractor resupply you with the same amount of absorbent you used. In this manner, your absorbent inventory would be replenished even before you leave the incident site, and there is no cost to you and no paperwork involved. This same procedure will also work for other types of consumable items, such as absorbent pads and booms. Most contractors will then add the cost of these supplies to the cleanup bill charged to the responsible party.

Equipment normally found on fire apparatus can also be used to build containment pools for use during decontamination activities. Although fire equipment vendors will gladly sell you sophisticated collapsible pools, they are expensive and take up valuable storage space. As seen in Figure 2, you can build an effective containment pool using two sections of hard-sleeve hose, a pike pole, and a folding attic ladder. These items are standard equipment on most engines. Once the frame is built, as shown, lay a salvage cover or plastic sheet cut to size over the frame, and tuck the ends underneath each of the four cross-members. This device will hold a lot of water, and it’s free.

As seen earlier, small equipment trailers are not always the simplest solution for transporting equipment to an incident scene. To avoid problems like those in the scenario, store the ball mount for a trailer on the trailer frame near the hitch instead of inside the trailer. Locks on the trailer should be combination locks rather than keyed locks. Purchase a combination lock that allows the user to reset the combination. Locks are available with both number and letter configurations so that you can use a password that is easy to remember instead of numbers. When using a numerical lock, examples of combinations include apparatus numbers and station numbers. Another option is to use the numbers found on the trailer’s license plate. Whatever combination you use, keep it simple.

Trailers with heavier gross vehicle weight ratings that require electric brakes present first responders with a number of potential problems. First, any vehicle used to pull the trailer must have the appropriate brake controller and wiring configuration on the wiring harness to activate the brakes. Another concern is the break-away feature of these trailers, which automatically applies the brakes if the trailer “breaks away” from the towing vehicle. Most break-away kits rely on a small battery to supply an electric current, but too often these batteries have an insufficient charge to properly activate the brakes. It is extremely dangerous to to transport a trailer without using the electric brakes because your vehicle’s wiring harness doesn’t fit and it lacks a properly functioning break-away feature. There is a great potential for physical injuries and property damage, as well as significant civil and criminal liability.

For most departments, the solution is to have a utility vehicle, such as a pickup truck or SUV, available (that has the appropriate load capacity required by the trailer) with the proper electrical hookup to pull the trailer. Because this vehicle could be unavailable at times, make a diligent effort to ensure that alternatives are available.They could include a private towing service that could respond when needed or other vehicles within your department.

Remember that a member of your department who elects to pull an equipment trailer with his personal vehicle may not have insurance coverage for this type of activity. In the event of an accident involving the trailer, your local government risk management folks may not cover this individual, and his personal insurance company may also refuse to cover him. . As a result, despite his desire to help out, he’s on his own facing a multitude of financial and legal problems. To be sure of what to expect, check with the risk management department before an accident occurs.

You can usually avoid problems related to the break-away function of electric brakes by using a structured preventive maintenance inspection program and having spare parts, such as batteries and break-away switches, readily available. One suggestion is to exercise the trailer at least every 30 days by driving it for several miles, activating the brakes repeatedly, and charging the battery by the tow vehicle. Consider that a 10-mile trip on the interstate does little to work the braking system, so a drive through town is probably better. Also, test the break-away switch by beginning with the trailer stopped, pulling the break-away switch apart, and then attempting to move the trailer forward. The brakes should activate, and the trailer should stop within a few feet.

Document these exercise activities and have any defects corrected promptly. If you fail to do so and a crash related to the trailer’s braking system occurs, your department could be charged with criminal negligence for knowingly operating defective equipment.

Many of the recommendations in this article are not overly technical and may not impress those who consider themselves to be “hazmat techies.” But fire departments with hazardous materials teams respond to far more fuel spills than true hazmat incidents, and events such as those depicted in this scenario are fact, not fiction. Regardless of your level of sophistication, it’s the little things that will trip you up. My experience has been that attention to detail is often the key to success.

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


1. An underflow dam is a containment device best used in narrow creeks and streams with flowing water to contain products that do not mix with water and that float. Examples include gasoline and fuel oil. An earthen dam is built around a pipe that is placed on an angle so that the discharge end is higher than the inlet side. The inlet is placed beneath the surface of the water. This allows clean water below the surface to flow through the pipe while the contaminant, which floats on the surface, is contained by the dam.

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

Steven 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. 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; 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 has a master’s degree in public safety leadership and is the author of the textbook entitled Hazardous Material Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response (Fire Engineering, 2006).

Subjects: Hazardous materials response, firefighter hazmat training, hazmat equipment issues

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