In approaching a hazardous materials incident, firefighters must break the problem into manageable pieces so that they can get the big picture, Kristina Kreutzer said to students of her workshop, “Hazmat: Initial Approach and Actions” Monday afternoon. The assistant chief of the Mill Creek (DE) Fire Company has presented at the Fire Department Instructors Conference since 2006.
Often, responders are overwhelmed by some of the information about hazardous materials, especially the chemical-specific information. If you can break it down into the probability of contact (how the material moves, i.e., as a solid, liquid or gas) and consequences of contact (what it does, i.e., energy releasing, corrosive, and toxic), and consider those together, you have a tool to help guide you in your tactical decisions. You can use a similar approach in evaluating the container, which again can be used to make predictions on the course of the incident, according to Kreutzer.
Kreutzer presented a “good or bad” evaluation chart that aids in evaluating the situation and in deciding what to do about protecting personnel from the material. The chart plots the probability of contact along the vertical axis (solid to gas), and consequences of contact along the horizontal axis according the substance’s properties (combustible to rapid energy release, slightly to highly toxic, and mild to severe corrosive). Using the chart, the class reviewed several hazmat incidents, discussing strategy and tactics.
Using the chart, a quick assessment can be done, which aids in making tactical decisions such as determining the size of exclusion zones, choosing protective equipment, and developing material management strategies. A proper size-up provides key data.
“My fire chief once told me that he doesn’t want a dissertation on what a chemical is going to do, he just wants to know if it’s good or bad,” Kreutzer said, so she came up with the chart. The chart distills a lot of the hard core technical data into something a fire chief can use, and is a simple approach to understanding hazmat.
Other hazmat classes inspired this class, according to Kreutzer. “There’s often a disconnect between defining things, and then translating them to action items. For example, when covering personal protective gear, a lot of classes cover the definition of a level A suit, but they don’t give you guidance on when you might want to choose that instead of a level B suit,” she commented.
“I try to take the information, group it together into pieces that can be easily understood, and then apply it to real life situations,” Kreutzer said. “If people really understand the problem, and how they can use their knowledge, they can make better decisions that will keep their people safe, and better serve the public,” she added.
Hazmat incidents can lead to information overload. By using simple information management strategies and simple tools to interpret information, such as the chart, responders can avoid paralysis by analysis and initiate a sound response plan.