Removing the Dust from the ERG

Photos and article by Todd C. McKee

Ah, the old Emergency Response Guide (ERG), the book in the truck that sits in the cubbyhole and collects dust. The book that never seems to get used and appears to be hidden in our apparatus. Firefighters all over the United States are trained to use the ERG on calls such as tanker spills, propane leaks, rail disasters, and so forth, but after a few years in the service, we get complacent and forget the basics. How many times have you responded to a propane leak and not opened the ERG? You may think on the way to the call, “Just another propane leak,” a routine job. But what if on arrival, you discover the situation is more complicated? Hopefully, you will then remember to look in the ERG and move forward and adapt.

Fire officers and firefighters all over forget about using the ERG to adapt and overcome to each situation. Provide an ERG to every firefighter in your district, put the ERGs in your radio rooms, and even go as far as put the ERG in your personal spaces, such as bathrooms and bunkrooms. Get your firefighters tired of seeing the ERG in the firehouse. This way they never forget when that “routine” propane call comes in.

But firefighters must also pick up the ERG and use it. There is a simple solution to this: Not only must we put the ERG in personal spaces, we need to hang placards in those areas. Hang them on the wall by the firefighter’s bed, hang them on the door to the bunkroom, even hang them on the bathroom stall–we all say that’s where we do our best reading and thinking.

After they have read all the articles in the current Fire Engineering, firefighters will then pick up the ERG and look up the placard that has been placed on the stall. It will bother firefighters to know what the chemical name is on those placards placed all over the firehouse, but after they find out the chemical name, they get curious and will start researching all the information on the placard. You may say this is outlandish, but try it, it really works. A chief I once suggested this to told me that his guys are now picking up their ERGs and wondering what the placard of the day will be, competing to see who can get the most information quickest. After the dust is removed from the old ERG, it should never be forgotten.


Identify the material by one of the following:

  • Four-digit ID Number on the placard, shipping document, or the package

  • The name of the material on the shipping document, placard, or package

Look up the material’s three-digit Guide Number

  • ID number index (yellow pages)

  • Name of Material Index (blue pages)
    • Remember, if the letter “P” is beside a guide number, it means polymerization = expansion of molecules (Example: shaving cream)
    • If entry is highlighted in the yellow or blue pages, it becomes a Toxic Inhalation Hazard (TIH) on contact with water
    • Use Guide 112 for all explosives, except 1.4 explosives, for which you must use Guide 114

Next, turn to the numbered Guides (orange pages)

  • Decision making pages

  • If unable to obtain Guide Number, go to pages 16 and 17 in the Emergency Response Guide Table of Placards).

  • If an incident seems to be dangerous and the Guide Number cannot be found, use Guide Number 111.
    • Do not be lazy and think you can use Guide 111 on all emergencies
    • A good scene size-up is important (see below)
    • Guide pages also has evacuation distances

Green Pages

  • Lists by ID Number

  • Lists isolation and protective action distances

  • Large spill, small spill

  • Day or night
    • A large spill is 55 gallons or more
    • A small spill is less than 55 gallons
    • If of unknown size, assume it is a large spill
    • TIH information is listed along with chemical symbols

Scene Size-Up

  • Approach upwind

  • Secure the scene

  • Identify hazards

  • Assess the situation. Consider:
    • Is there is spill leak or fire?
    • Weather
    • Terrain
    • What is at risk? (perform a risk assessment)
    • What actions can be taken?
    • What can be done now?

  • Obtain help

  • Decide if entry is needed

  • Respond in appropriate manner

For example, if anhydrous ammonia is leaking in the middle of field with no victims or exposures, a non-emergency response would most likely be appropriate. This substance is a fertilizer and with no victims or exposures there is no need to risk lives with an emergency response. The issue is merely how tall the corn will grow next year.

As another example, imagine the anhydrous ammonia tank is in front of a school, on a street, or a highway. Now there are additional issues other than corn. An emergency response is necessary because of victims and exposures.

  • Do not walk into or touch spilled material

  • Remember, always perform a risk assessment. If the benefit is low and the risk is high, stay away. If the benefit is high and the risk is low, you must go.

Keep that dust off the ERG–be safe and train!

Todd C. McKee is a firefighter with the Eastern Knox County (OH) Joint Fire District in Danville, Ohio. He is a 10-year veteran of the fire service. He also works for the College Township (OH) Fire Department, is a fire instructor at the Knox County Career Center, and is a hazmat trainer for the University of Findlay.

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