With the October 1996 issue of Fire Engineering and a review of the chemical ethyl acetate, this series known as the Chemical Data Notebook came to an end. It began in the June 1986 issue with sulfuric acid, the world?s highest-volume chemical, and ended with ethyl acetate, a flammable liquid. I promised Tom Brennan, then the editor of Fire Engineering, a 10-year series covering 120 of the most common hazardous materials that, if accidentally released, would threaten our citizens, communities, environment, and firefighters. Now, slightly more than 10 years later (with some special issues that did not contain the series), I have fulfilled that promise to Bill Manning, current editor and Brennan?s able successor.

Many things have come to pass since the first article in the series was published. The archenemy of the western world, the Soviet Union, is gone; the Berlin Wall, instead of Humpty Dumpty, has tumbled down. Many people have been born and many have died, and none of our jobs are as secure as they once seemed. The two constants that continue from that time are Fire Engineering?s dedication to the education of the fire service and the hazardous-materials problem. And even the hazardous-materials problem is changing.

The year 1986 saw what probably was the apex of the zeal of fire departments across the country in acting on their concern about hazardous materials and the problems they presented. Everyone was concerned about the problem, and every department wanted its own hazardous-materials re-sponse team or some of its members to be part of such a team.

In the intervening years, there have been almost as many approaches to solving the hazardous-materials problem as there are hazardous materials. Some progressive fire departments, led by fire chiefs with a vision of the future, have approached the problem correctly, with the proper education, training, and equipping of the members of their hazardous-materials response teams, supplemented by constant retraining using improved equipment and refined training techniques. At the other end of the scale, some chiefs have ignored the hazardous- materials problem altogether for whatever agenda they may be following. But as these chiefs retire and are replaced by more progressive chiefs, this end of the spectrum is disappearing.


The early years of hazardous-materials education saw quite a bit of Ohit-and-missO education being offered. Many of the people who passed themselves off as hazardous- materials instructors knew very little about the subject. However, most of their students knew even less; and as once was brilliantly pointed out: In the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!

Hazardous-materials courses were developed in the middle ?70s and incorporated into fire science programs at various community and technical colleges around the country. The educators involved had educational or hands-on knowledge of hazardous materials, and quality education was dispensed in most of these situations. This early OeducationO in hazardous materials presented by many unqualified teachers was extremely dangerous. Firefighters have always had a right to quality instructors, who certainly existed by 1986. But the good teachers were busy, having established their reputations in the ?70s, when the educational material was being gathered into meaningful curricula at places like the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. For a while, it seemed that all firefighters wanted was a certificate of completion of a course, and it didn?t matter whether they were taught anything important or learned anything at all.

The certification of instructors by various organizations has increased the quality of hazardous-materials education tremendously. This is one of the most positive changes since 1986.

The implementation of the various federal laws governing workers and community right-to-know laws gave a tremendous impetus to the effort to protect our society from hazardous-materials incidents. Some money became available for increased training in the handling of hazardous-materials incidents, and more and more hazardous-materials response teams were formed. However, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) lost funding and personnel due to actions by the White House in the ?80s, mixed signals were sent to the fire service.

The situation today is quite different. The flow of new chemicals into the stream of commerce has not slowed; if anything, it has increased. Therefore, the hazardous-materials problem is greater than it was 20 years ago. Our bridges, highways, and railroad facilities have continued to age, and money to remedy these problems is harder and harder to find. Due to increased education and efforts by our fire departments, smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and new building techniques and materials, the number of fires is decreasing across America (although we still have one of the worst records of deaths caused by fires of the industrialized nations). Local lawmakers are translating this decrease in the number of fires as a need for fewer firefighters in their communities. While it is true that there are more trained hazardous-materials incident responders now than ever before, there could be a sudden decrease in their numbers as it gets harder and harder for departments to keep their authorized strength up while the feeling that fewer and fewer firefighters are needed in communities grows across the country.

The haz-mat team has been in the news so often that it no longer seems unusual to see one on the evening news; this means that familiarity will breed contempt. Training will become pass?, and soon we will be back to the dangerous era of the ?70s.


The solution, of course, is for fire chiefs to fight harder than ever for training money and to keep the personnel requirements at levels that will provide the kind of protection their customers deserve. They must do better strategic planning to become as efficient and as effective as humanly possible and good marketing to let everyone in their protection districts know exactly what services can be provided and at what cost.

Above all, emergency responders must keep their hazardous-materials education and training at the highest possible level. Go back over the Chemical Data Notebook series and read about the common hazardous materials you will face in most of your responses. Note that every chemical discussed has more hazards than just the most obvious one that determines its hazard class.

Recall, for example, that sulfuric acid is not only a powerful corrosive that can kill an unprotected person when it contacts a relatively small area of his body but that it is also a violently water-reactive material, a powerful oxidizer, and a very reactive chemical that will produce violent chemical reactions when it contacts a very long list of chemicals.

Remember that organic peroxides like benzoyl peroxide are very unstable and have the ability to react violently with many other chemicals but can also react in a violent manner all by themselves. Organic peroxides are man-made chemicals that have all three legs of the fire triangle built into them.

Don?t forget that a flammable gas, like ethylene, is also a monomer, which means that it not only is a likely candidate for a BLEVE (boiling liquid-expanding vapor explosion) but also an explosive runaway polymerization reaction that might be just as devastating. It is also a very reactive chemical that will react violently with other chemicals and that, when shipped as a cryogenic liquid, extreme coldness is added to its list of hazards. Other flammable gases such as hydrogen sulfide add extreme toxicity to the list of hazards; and a toxic, flammable gas such as ammonia travels under a placard of nonflammable gas.

The list goes on and on. The point is, each hazardous material has hazards in addition to the OmajorO that determines its particular hazard class. Emergency responders must be constantly aware of these Ocross-hazards.O They could kill as easily (and perhaps more quickly and painfully) than the major hazard listed. Responders may be fatally surprised when trying to control a release of extremely toxic hydrogen cyanide gas that contacts an ignition source and produces an explosion that kills everyone within a 100-yard (or wider) radius.

The Chemical Data Notebook series also contains certain mitigation techniques to be used under certain conditions with certain chemicals. Be advised that all conditions must be OrightO for these techniques to be performed safely. And in all circumstances, you must follow the orders of your superior officers. Hopefully, all your and your officers? education and training will keep you from making any serious mistakes and all the equipment and protective clothing you are using will keep you from being injured or killed.

I?m not a firefighter or an emergency responder of any sort. I don?t have the courage to do what you who respond to emergencies do. But I do know this. Whatever it is that makes you run into burning buildings while I?m running out may cause you to make mistakes during a hazardous- materials incident that may cost you your life. You must always remember that the number-one exposure is you, not someone else who may be endangered by the hazardous material. You must protect yourself before you can protect anyone else. If you are injured or killed, the people you are trying to protect probably will also be injured or killed. To be able to give the protection you want to give, you must get the best education you can, go through vigorous training, and equip yourself with the best tools available.

* * *

Finally, I would like to thank Fire Engineering?especially Tom Brennan and Bill Manning?for running the Chemical Data Notebook series for the past 10 years. I don?t think anything like this has happened in any trade magazine, let alone a fire service magazine. It takes a special kind of philosophy and a special kind of person to believe so strongly in the education of the fire service that he would give up valuable magazine space to run a specialized series for 10 years. Bill is carrying on the tradition of excellence in education for which the magazine stands.

Special thanks also to Henry Dinneen, publisher of Fire Engineering, for his cooperation in allowing space for the series. We are talking hard dollars here that Henry invested in the space for the article in each issue. Henry is responsible for the bottom line, and a ratio of editorial space to advertising space is critical in the eyes of his boss.

And finally, extra special thanks to the people who make writers look good, the editors of everything written in the magazine. The group includes Managing Editor Diane Feldman; Associate Editor Mary Jane Dittmar; Assistant Editor Robert J. Maloney; Technical Editor Glenn P. Corbett; and former editors Audrey Pavey, Jackie Cox, Gloria Sturzenacker, Sheila Noonan, Elana Seifert, and John Napolitano. These people bring (have been bringing) you, on the highest level of excellence, the best magazine serving the fire service in the world. n

FRANK L. FIRE is the vice president of marketing for Americhem, Inc. in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He`s an instructor of hazardous-materials chemistry at the University of Akron as well as an adjunct instructor of haz mats at the National Fire Academy. Fire is the author of The Common Sense Approach to Hazardous Materials and an accompanying study guide, Combustibility of Plastics, and Chemical Data Notebook: A User`s Manual, published by Fire Engineering Books. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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