Haz-Mat Survival Tips: Lessons Learned

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 22

By Steven De Lisi

I learned many lessons during my 25 years of responding to hazardous materials incidents, both on an engine company and on a hazardous materials team. Unfortunately, many of these lessons were learned the hard way, especially during the early days of organized haz-mat teams response, when there were few sources of information to which first responders could refer for assistance.

This lack of information was especially notable when it involved “routine” incidents. At that time, much attention was then focused on how we would handle the “big one,” while it was often the smaller incidents that got us into trouble. Despite these limitations, we did learn and we became better at what we did.

Of course, the reality of the fire service, as in any occupation, is that each generation will always need to learn these same basic lessons in order to ensure its survival. Listed below is a compilation of 10 lessons learned that, had I known them in 1982, would have made my life a little easier.

1. Beware the words, “It’s just…” These are often the first words spoken by some responsible parties (and even some first responders) to downplay the severity of an incident and persuade you that the product involved is not a hazardous material and is therefore not dangerous. In reality, although not all materials are regulated and defined by a governmental agency as a hazardous material and therefore not subject to special handling or reporting requirements, most products that first responders will encounter have some potential to cause harm to people, property, or the environment when released from their container. First responders have an obligation to determine this potential harm so that they can make informed decisions on how to best manage the incident.

2. Remember that any incident can involve hazardous materials. Unsuspecting first responders have the potential for an unwelcome surprise when they erroneously assume that incidents involving difficulty breathing are always the result of medical emergencies rather than exposure to a hazardous material. Likewise, fires involving structures, vehicles, and trash containers all have the potential to involve containers of hazardous materials, the contents of which can be released following damage to containers from excessive heat or from efforts to overhaul the fire scene. Although some may deny the need for this constant level of vigilance, remember that the one time you let down your guard is when you may most regret it.

3. STAY BACK! Without a doubt, the decision of some first responders to park their apparatus on top of an incident is one of the most dangerous acts they will undertake during the entire event. This is especially troublesome when first responders arrive on scene for a report of a natural gas leak inside a building and they park in front of the building. Should the building suddenly explode, they are in the direct path of flying debris. It is always easier to approach any scene slowly and cautiously from a distance rather than race in and suddenly discover that you have to back up in a hurry. Remember too that backing up can be extremely difficult if you have other apparatus that have followed right in behind you, as is often the case in a multiple-unit response.

4. Get help from the manufacturer of products involved in a hazardous materials incident. Despite what first responders can learn from material safety data sheets (MSDSs) and other reference sources available in a variety of formats, the best source of information is usually a representative from the company that makes the product. And despite what can be learned 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 someone sick.

5. The best way to decontaminate first responders is to NOT allow them to get contaminated in the first place. Remember that despite the availability of water and other decontamination methods at the scene, some hazardous materials can quickly penetrate layers of firefighter structural protective clothing, sometimes without the wearer knowing it, thereby exposing first responders to negative health effects. On many occasions, this contaminated protective clothing must be replaced–an expensive option for most departments. And don’t always count on the responsible party to reimburse your department for the cost of purchasing replacement gear.

6. An inconvenience is temporary. Dead is forever. During any hazardous materials incident, first responders always face decisions on evacuations, sheltering-in-place, and road closures. Complicating their decision making is the fear of reprisals from many different entities for “overreacting.” These entities can include the public, affected businesses, and even law enforcement agencies. First responders will never truly appreciate this concern until a business owner approaches them, threatening to sue the person who issued an evacuation order, or a police officer confronts them, intent on arresting the person who decided to close all lanes of an interstate route during rush hour. Remember to stand your ground, because all evacuations and road closures are temporary. Dead is forever.

7. Don’t inherit an incident by attempting to clean up spilled hazardous materials. First responders may attempt to clean up small spills of hazardous materials as part of what they might consider their normal service delivery to the community. However, despite their best efforts, first responders are confronted with several problems whenever they attempt cleanup, including decisions on when cleanup is complete and the scene is rendered safe as well as how to safely and legally dispose of the cleanup residue. Another issue is reimbursement for any materials used during the cleanup. Decisions on cleanup are best left to representatives from local and state environmental regulatory agencies.

8. Know how to contact representatives from local and state agencies after hours and on weekends and holidays. During most hazardous materials incidents, assistance from local and state regulatory agencies, especially those dealing with environmental issues, is a must. However, experienced first responders know that some of the worst hazardous materials incidents will occur during the night, on weekends, and even on holidays. Attempting to contact representatives from these agencies outside of their normal work schedule can prove frustrating, if not impossible. To remedy this, know how to contact these individuals after hours, learn who can be contacted by pager or cell phone, and always have a backup contact in the event that the primary contact fails to respond in a timely manner. Remember to periodically update this contact information because it changes on a regular basis.

9. Know how to use atmospheric monitors correctly. Many first responders have access to atmospheric monitoring equipment that has a fair degree of sophistication, yet many fail to understand that they are bound by the decisions they make based upon their interpretation of the information provided. First responders and the public may be safer if the instrument is left off the apparatus altogether if few in your department know when the instrument was last calibrated and by whom, what calibration gas was used for the combustible gas sensor (if so equipped), what the correction factors and response times are, and how much additional response time is necessary when using external probes.

10. Contaminated patients must be decontaminated before receiving pre-hospital care and transport. Although this might sound like common sense, the emotional response by some when dealing with a contaminated and seriously injured patient can easily lure first responders to the point where they themselves become contaminated or suffer from inhalation of hazardous vapors or gases. Effective emergency decontamination (including removal of contaminated clothing and flushing with water for most chemical exposures) by those equipped with a minimum of structural firefighter protective clothing and SCBA is a must to protect the health and safety of those delivering prehospital care. This will also ensure the safety of any health care facilities that ultimately receive these patients.

Always remember that when dealing with hazardous materials, safety and survival is often in the hands of those first to arrive on scene. These are the individuals who must initially recognize the involvement of hazardous materials and who then have the unique opportunity to become part of the problem or stay part of the solution. The choice is yours.

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

Steven M. De Lisi retired after a fire service career spanning 27 years that included serving as a regional training manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP) and most recently as the deputy chief for the Virginia Air Guard Fire Rescue. De Lisi is a hazardous materials specialist and he continues to coordinate a statewide training program for the investigation of environmental crimes as an adjunct instructor for VDFP. De Lisi began his career in hazardous materials response in 1982 as a member of the haz-mat 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.

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