Haz-Mat Survival Tips: Beyond the Rule of Thumb

Tip #12: Learning the Characteristics of a Hazardous Material – Who Can You Call For Help?

By Steven De Lisi

When attempting to learn the characteristics of a hazardous material involved in an incident, one of the best sources of information is usually a person who
works for the company that makes it. Despite what you can learn from people who sell, use, or otherwise handle the product, the guy in the laboratory who
brought the product to market knows what makes it tick. And he probably already knows what makes it blow up and how it can make you sick.

During incidents at a facility where a material is manufactured, the source of information is probably available through technical personnel on-site. If these individuals are unavailable at the scene, someone there probably knows how to contact them.

When dealing with a facility where a product is used, there will likely be a material safety data sheet (MSDS) available (either in written form or electronically) and there may be someone there who knows something about the product. However, first responders should still consider contacting the manufacturer to ensure that they handle the material properly. Remember that most MSDSs will include an emergency telephone number for this purpose.

At fixed facilities where materials are only stored or sold, such as warehouses and retail stores, it may be difficult to learn the characteristics of a hazardous material because employees at these sites merely stock shelves and perform sales transactions. Also, MSDSs may not be readily available since these documents are usually required only when employees are using a product, not just handling the containers.

Shippers and carriers can play major roles in transportation incidents. A shipper is the point of origin and that a carrier is the transporter. On some occasions, a chemical manufacturing company may be both the shipper and the carrier. However, during most incidents, the manufacturer, shipper, and carrier are all different.

Once contact has been made with shippers and carriers, these companies may send technical representatives to the scene who can help first responders learn the characteristics of a hazardous material, especially if the incident involves a highway cargo tank or rail tank car.

When the shipper and carrier are the same, the likelihood is that drivers may know something about the material involved and may have even received specific
training on how to handle emergency incidents. This is especially true for those who operate highway cargo tank trucks. However, take care not to allow any driver free rein during an incident, since they may sometimes take unnecessary risks in attempting to resolve the problem.

During transportation incidents that involve box trucks, especially those used to transport general freight (all types of mixed cargo), don’t expect the driver for a carrier to know anything about the materials being shipped. Chances are the driver may have never even seen the inside of the truck once it was loaded.

If representatives from a manufacturer, shipper, or carrier are good sources of information relative to the characteristics of a hazardous material, how do you contact them during an emergency? One solution is that the Code of Federal Regulations governing transportation found in 49 CFR 172.604 requires an
emergency telephone number to be included on shipping papers for hazardous materials that are regulated during transportation.

Although you may reach a company directly using this number, many shippers and carriers instead register with the Chemical Transportation Emergency Center
(CHEMTREC) in order to comply with this section of the federal transportation regulations. CHEMTREC personnel, known as Emergency Services Specialists, know how to contact representatives from registered shippers and carriers and can also provide first responders with immediate technical information concerning material(s) involved. The telephone number for CHEMTREC, which is (800) 424-9300, can be found on shipping papers and may also be displayed on some bulk transportation containers. For further information on CHEMTREC, visit their website at www.chemtrec.org.

But what should first responders do when dealing with a shipment that is not “regulated” as a hazardous material and therefore is likely exempt from any
requirement to provide first responders with a 24-hour emergency number? Or what if first responders don’t have shipping papers? When these situations occur, first responders may be able to locate a phone number on a transport vehicle or perhaps on the outside of a container. However, at 3:00 AM, the response is likely to be a voicemail greeting suggesting they call back during normal business hours.

When confronted with this problem, here’s a solution that works:


  1. Determine a city and state for the shipper, manufacturer, or carrier. This information may be found on transport vehicles or the outside of containers.

  2. Call 4-1-1 (directory assistance).

  3. For the town or city where the company is located, request the phone number of the emergency dispatch center. This may be listed as a separate office, or for smaller localities, it may simply be the local sheriff’s office.

  4. Call that emergency dispatch center. Many of these locations have 24-hour contacts for businesses who they would normally call for emergencies such as if the business was on fire or if there had been a burglary.

  5. If a number is available, most dispatchers will not release it, but rather they will contact the representative and request this individual to contact first responders.

When attempting to learn the characteristics of a hazardous material, be smart, be safe, and remember, everyone goes home!

Discussion Points


  1. Have personnel from your department ever experienced problems when attempting to contact someone to learn the characteristics of a hazardous material while operating at incidents where the material was:

    • Manufactured

    • Stored

    • Sold

    • Used


  2. If problems were encountered during incidents involving the types of sites listed in Question 1, were these problems resolved and if so how?

  3. Have personnel from your department ever experienced problems contacting representatives from companies during transportation incidents that involved
    materials that were not regulated as a “hazardous material?” Were these problems resolved and if so, how?

Click here for more info on Steven De Lisi’s book, Hazardous Materials Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response.

Steven M. De Lisi is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and is currently Deputy Chief for the Virginia Air National Guard Fire Rescue located at the Richmond International Airport. De Lisi is a Hazardous Materials Specialist and chairman of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association’s Hazardous Materials Committee. He is also an adjunct instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs and a former member of the NFPA committee on hazardous materials protective clothing. 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 and in that capacity provided on-scene assistance to first responders involved with hazardous materials incidents in an area that included more than 20 local jurisdictions.

Haz-Mat Survival Tips: Beyond the Rule of Thumb

2

Survival Tip 11: Responding to Spills of Home Heating Oil

by Steven De Lisi

It’s winter and first responders in many parts of the country will once again be faced with incidents at residential occupancies that involve spills of heating oil. Perhaps an aboveground tank was overfilled by an inattentive delivery driver, or a tank that is placed on cinderblocks topples over due to the weight of the liquid. There are other occasions when a home will receive an automatic delivery at the start of each heating season, yet since the last time the tank was filled, the homeowner had installed a heat pump and removed the heating oil tank from his basement (but not the fill pipe) without informing the delivery company. The result could be several hundred gallons of oil pumped into the basement of the residence.

Another scenario includes situations when the fill pipe for an underground storage tank is broken off at the base and the tank fills with water during a heavy rainstorm. The result is a fast spreading oil slick that appears on the ground as the tank fills with water and displaces the oil.

During any incident that involves home heating oil spilled inside of a residence (including the crawl space underneath a residence), first responders should give careful consideration to any decision that allows occupants to remain inside. Besides the potential for a fire hazard, the vapors produced by the oil can have varying health affects on the occupants and on firefighters. First responders entering a building exposed to vapors from home heating oil should always consider the use of SCBA and take efforts to control ignition sources. They should also anticipate that indoor spills can enter floor drains and when this occurs, they must determine if these drains are connected to the local sewer system or perhaps nearby septic tanks.

For spills that occur outdoors, first responders should be prepared to use available resources in order to contain the release from spreading to nearby exposures. Remember that exposures include those below the surface, such as wells for domestic water supplies and septic systems. Even underground utility cables can be damaged if they become soaked with oil. Use caution if attempting to dig a retention area in soil to contain spilled liquid, since underground utilities, including electrical and gas lines, could be located dangerously close to the surface.

During severe weather, especially heavy rains, efforts to contain spills of home heating oil outdoors will be difficult, if not impossible. With this scenario, an oily sheen from the spilled fuel may spread across property lines, and as a result, the impact on neighboring occupancies must be assessed.

Stopping a release from a damaged or overturned tank will likely require the skills and equipment possessed by hazardous material teams. However, first responders should not be surprised if they encounter employees from a fuel oil delivery company who are attempting to use makeshift means to stop a release from an aboveground tank with little regard for their own personal safety. Despite the best intentions of these individuals, first responders should discourage this type of activity.

Cleanup related to spills of home heating oil that occur outdoors will likely require the removal of several inches of contaminated soil. Indoor spills may require vacuuming or use of absorbent pads to remove product, and perhaps even the removal of porous surfaces that allow the fuel to be absorbed, such as concrete floors found in basements and garages.

Regardless of the extent of cleanup required, the important point for first responders to remember is that it should not be their responsibility to figure out how the cleanup should be done, who will conduct the cleanup, who will pay for it, and then ultimately to determine when cleanup efforts are adequate and the scene rendered safe. Instead, these questions are best answered by representatives from various regulatory agencies, including those responsible for the environment and public health. First responders may even consider involving the local fire marshal if there are concerns related to code compliance regarding installation of heating equipment.

Financial liability for cleanup and scene restoration often rests with the responsible party. However, the responsible party may not always be just the fuel oil delivery company, but it could also be the property owner or even a tenant for rental property. The debate over just who is “responsible” can be complicated and it is best for first responders to stay out of this argument.

When dealing with cleanup issues, don’t be surprised if employees from the company delivering the heating oil either attempt to downplay the severity of the incident or attempt to conduct cleanup on their own rather than use a cleanup contractor. While allowing the oil company to conduct its own cleanup may seem like a simple solution, determining if employees from the company are legally qualified to conduct cleanup operations may require the involvement of state occupational safety representatives. Furthermore, their plans for disposal of contaminated material (such as absorbent pads or soil), must be done in accordance with applicable regulations. Once again, representatives from regulatory agencies should be the ones to determine if the company is qualified, not first responders.

While contacting individuals from different regulatory agencies may take some time to coordinate, the extra effort is worth it since it reduces the liability of the fire department should any problems arise later on. First responders should know how to contact these representatives after normal business hours, and on holidays and weekends. Remember that spills of home heating oil that occur on a late Friday evening can’t wait until Monday morning to be resolved.

Remember too that if first responders take it upon themselves to contact a cleanup contractor, they may also receive the bill. Therefore, decisions regarding selection of a cleanup contractor and financial liability should be left up to the responsible parties and the regulatory agencies discussed earlier.

When responding to incidents that involve spills of home heating oil, be smart, be safe, and remember, everyone goes home!

Discussion Points


  1. Has your department responded to incidents involving spills of home heating oil when members of the department became involved in cleanup activities or when their decisions resulted in financially liable for the cleanup? What were the outcomes?

  2. Has your department responded to incidents involving spills of home heating oil when first responders became ill following exposure to the vapors from the spilled material? How did these exposures occur and what were the outcomes?

  3. Do members of your department know how to contact representatives from the following agencies during incidents that involve spills of home heating oil:

    • Environmental Protection

    • Public Health

    • Fire Marshal (local or state)

    • Occupational Safety


    Could they contact these individuals at night or on weekends and holidays?

Click here for more info on Steven De Lisi’s book, Hazardous Materials Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response.

Steven M. De Lisi is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and is currently Deputy Chief for the Virginia Air National Guard Fire Rescue located at the Richmond International Airport. De Lisi is a Hazardous Materials Specialist and chairman of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association’s Hazardous Materials Committee. He is also an adjunct instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs and a former member of the NFPA committee on hazardous materials protective clothing. 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 and in that capacity provided on-scene assistance to first responders involved with hazardous materials incidents in an area that included more than 20 local jurisdictions.