Anthrax Policy Causes Dissension Among the Ranks

Derby, CT, November 15,2001-Municipal safety agencies across the country have been inundated recently with “white powder” calls. The anthrax scares in New York City and Washington, D.C., have residents everywhere on edge to the point where flour on a shopping cart might be mistaken for powder with anthrax spores. More often than not, the fire department is called to handle these situations.

A recent policy dispute in Derby, Connecticut, should be a message to all fire departments to have a standard operating procedure (SOP) in place to handle these types of situations. The SOP should take into consideration first and foremost the safety of the firefighters who answer the “white powder” call.

Members of Storm Engine No. 2 recently voted to have a policy regarding biological and chemical crises rescinded on the grounds that it might put firefighters in danger. The firefighters contend that the policy could send them to potential anthrax threats or similar emergencies without proper training and equipment.

The disputed policy was developed with the help of state and federal public safety agencies and includes provisions that restrict firefighters not wearing proper gear from entering a structure if there is a possible biological or chemical hazard. The company’s firefighters do receive special training for these types of emergencies and have special equipment, but they want a higher grade of certification and more sophisticated equipment before handling biological emergencies.

This chief of the department states that the firefighters’ concerns are being considered as the policy is revised.

This type of dispute is indicative of the importance of having specific SOPs that make it clear who can and cannot enter a structure where a potential biological or chemical hazard exists. It is imperative for municipal safety agencies to coordinate how they plan to respond to such threats. For example, any emergency that involves biological or chemical hazards should involve a hazardous materials team.

More often than not, these incidents are criminal incidents that involve the police department. Without a clear SOP, there is the potential for police officers armed with nothing more than thin rubber gloves to enter a contaminated area, contaminating themselves and, subsequently, those around them. Firefighters could find themselves in the same situation.

Now is the time to develop your biological/chemical incident response procedures. Clearly identify those members who are haz-mat technicians and those who have only operations- or awareness-level training. And make sure that your response is a coordinated effort among several agencies.

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