Hazmat Survival Tips: On To Plan B

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 44

By Steven De Lisi

I was once assigned to a fire station that housed an engine equipped with electronic control valves at the pump panel. Having come from stations where pumpers dating to the 1960s and 1970ss were the norm, I considered this as a step up in the world. Ye, part of me could not get past the comfort of knowing that when you manually move a lever at the pump panel to open a discharge gate of a 1962 American LaFrance engine, water most likely would come out. What would you do if the electric motor didn’t work? The result, a delay in supplying water, could be devastating. The obvious solution was to investigate how to manually operate the gate if such a situation were to occur. In doing so, I learned that by opening a small panel door just above the pump panel, you could gain access to the control valve and that removing a small pin from the point where the valve handle connected to the motor, you would then be able to operate the valve by hand.

Most engines today also incorporate electric pump-shift mechanisms, and there is most likely a manual override capability. But how many pump operators know how to perform the manual override and, if they do, how many have practiced this maneuver? Remember, when you are first-due at a working fire, not being able to get water out the pump is not acceptable. There needs to be a Plan B to overcome obstacles that could lead to a life-threatening situation. An overreliance on the belief that things will always operae as intended is dangerous.

But it’s not enough to have a Plan B. Personnel must also practice Plan B so that when it is implemented, which is almost always under adverse conditions (otherwise know as the panic mode), until it is second nature. Crews must be able to react in a seamless fashion so that anyone watching who didn’t know better would never surmise that something was amiss.

There is no excuse for not having a Plan B when dealing with hazardous materials incidents. Things have gone, and will go, wrong. Despite your best efforts to maintain equipment in working order, you may find yourself wishing you had developed an alternative solution in advance. This can best be resolved during ongoing in-service training that takes into account problems that might be encountered.

For example, problems could occur because a key individual is absent or because you have few people available to staff a particular function. Are there other hazardous materials teams nearby? Have you ever trained with them, or do you believe that they are not worthy of your time and attention? There could be an incident down the road when you may need some help; the time to reach out is now. If department rivalry and bitterness exist for reasons that no one today can even remember, a meeting to discuss consolidation of personnel and equipment resources may be long overdue. I have found that lunch in conjunction with an informal joint in-service training session can go a long way to improving working relationships. You just have to swallow your pride and make the first call.

When key personnel are unavailable, others who have been cross-trained on your team can provide backup. Also, know whom you can call in other departments or elsewhere to obtain the needed assistance. Examples of situations affecting hazardous materials teams include incidents that occur when your best chemist is on vacation, your best research technician is on long-term sick leave, or the logistics genius who knows every inch of your equipment vehicle gets promoted to an administrative position. Sometimes skilled individuals are reluctant to train others to their s level because of ego or fear of having these individuals replace them some day. It is vital for team leaders to ensure the readiness of at least one or two “understudies” who can carry on the mission in the absence of the star player. Industry contacts are another vital source of backup assistance. Knowing these individuals in advance and how to contact them at 3:00 a.m. can help team leaders maintain forward momentum during an incident.

As stated earlier, the impact of equipment failures during an incident can sometimes be resolved by conducting expedient field repairs or by using alternative means to accomplish a given task. Therefore, don’t just train on how to use an atmospheric monitor. Train also on what you would do if you needed the instrument and it didn’t work. For example, battery failure in detection and monitoring equipment is not uncommon. If the rechargeable batteries for a particular device don’t work, does the manufacturer provide the means to use nonrechargeable batteries? If so, does your team have the necessary adapter kit to make this possible? If so, has anyone installed it? If not, the time to train on this is before you really need it.

Another example of field repairs includes replacing sensors in atmospheric monitors. This would most likely become necessary during a long-term event, but remember that those responsible for these repairs must have received proper training, usually from manufacturer representatives.

As with atmospheric monitors, don’t just train on how to use chemical personal protective equipment (PPE). Instead, include training on what to do when your PPE and related equipment fail. Examples of potential failures involving protective clothing include in-suit communication devices used when wearing fully encapsulating suits. Has your team members become so confident in using this hi-tech equipment that they have forgotten how to use hand signals that were once the sole means of transmitting vital information to those outside of the hot zone? Let’s hope not.

Potential in-suit emergencies are most often related to a failure of the self-contained breathing apparatus, with the immediate need to activate the device’s emergency bypass valve. Team members must practice for this, because the wearer must quickly remove one hand from the suit sleeve and locate and operate the bypass valve without fumbling. This needs to be an almost automatic response when your air supply has been compromised; repetition is the only way to make sure this happens in a flawless manner. The alternative is almost certain panic with possible damage to the suit as you frantically try to activate the bypass valve from outside of the suit. Subsequent exposure to a potentially deadly environment will only add to your woes.

Other types of equipment failures may involve non-department equipment found at incident sites. For example, a fuel tank farm may have an installed foam fire suppression system for aboveground tanks. Your department may rely on this system during an incident involving a tank fire. During a preplan tour of the facility, you may learn how the system works and how you can support its water supply. But don’t stop there! Determine in advance what you would do if the system didn’t work correctly the one day it was needed. Have a Plan B before you need it.

The same holds true for supplies of foam concentrate. Perhaps your department doesn’t stock supplies of regular foam or alcohol-resistant foam or, if it does, you do not have quantities sufficient for a major event. Whom would you call to obtain additional supplies? Perhaps you would call the local airport to request use of its crash truck. Although this might be a viable option, remember that if you don’t check this out in advance, a critique of the incident will most likely include corrective action regarding whom to contact to request the vehicle (the firehouse? Airport communications? The Federal Aviation Agency tower?) and how to communicate with the truck since its radio frequency if different from your department’s. Instead of waiting until after an incident to fix problems, anticipate these problems up front by using a little “what-if” brainstorming and come up with the solutions beforehand. It might make the critique of your next big incident less painful.

Many elevated roadways have built-in standpipe systems to allow for fire department pumpers to supply water to apparatus operating on bridge decks and ramps. This is especially true in urban areas. If this piping system fails, some departments may have discussed using a platform aerial device as an alternative, but how many have actually set up this operation to determine the best placement for the truck? And if they have practiced, was it on a Sunday (with very few cars present) or during a weekday when traffic congestion is at its peak? After an incident, you may discover that there is need for an area below a section of an elevated roadway with restricted parking to enable the setting up of a large aerial truck on any day of the week at any time. Instead of waiting, if you have a similar situation in your jurisdiction, check it out beforehand to avoid learning the hard way that there is no way to increase the reach of a 100-foot aerial.

Another interesting aspect of training for hazardous materials incidents is that almost all training takes place during daylight hours on level surfaces. Too often, team members are called to attempt to stop a leak from an overturned cargo tank that is resting on a grade in a highway median. Incidents such as these are worse when they occur at night, because no matter how many lights you have at the scene, there will always be areas that are not as well lit as others and team members will be forced to deal with shadows as they themselves block the overhead lights as they work at the scene.

One way to prepare for this scenario is to take whatever training devices you have (an old chlorine ton cylinder, a 55-gallon drum with a hole in the bottom, or even a collection of pipes connected in a maze that contain numerous holes) and place the prop on an inclined grassy area at night. Remember, however, that just as when dealing with overturned vehicles in the real world, you must stabilize the training prop to ensure personnel safety.

Team members attempting to stop a leak from these training props may find that even placing a five-gallon tool bucket on the ground is a challenge as it falls over and dumps out all of the tools. Training at night during summer months also offers cooler weather that can reduce problems associated with heat stress when operating in fully encapsulated suits.

It is an injustice to train hazardous materials team members in optimum conditions; they are often forced to operate in real-world conditions that are far less accommodating. If you really want to be prepared, develop and practice a Plan B.

Individuals in the best position to develop these plans are sometimes perceived as overly critical or pessimistic because they see the worst in everything. They also constantly ask “what if” when confronted with almost any situation. Although this type of personality can drive most folks crazy, especially when you have to live with them during 24-hour shift, their inquisitive nature can be tapped and used as a resource when developing a Plan B. To them the glass may always be half empty, but their inquisitive nature could also prevent the glass from losing its entire contents. At that point, the glass would be empty no matter which way you looked at it.

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.

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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