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:
- Determine a city and state for the shipper, manufacturer, or carrier. This information may be found on transport vehicles or the outside of containers.
- Call 4-1-1 (directory assistance).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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:
- If problems were encountered during incidents involving the types of sites listed in Question 1, were these problems resolved and if so how?
- 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.