Hazmat Survival Tips: Dealing with a Vehicle Fire Involving an Acrylic Polymer Powder


Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 52

By Steven De Lisi

Just before midnight on a Saturday in July, first responders were dispatched to a report of a vehicle fire on the northbound shoulder of an interstate route. On arrival they discovered a 53-foot van trailer fully involved. The driver had disconnected from the trailer, and the tractor was parked several hundred yards north of the incident.

Using their basic training in hazardous materials response, first responders resisted the urge to extinguish the fire until they had obtained additional information regarding the nature of the cargo and proper suppression methods. The driver provided them with the bill of lading, which indicated that the product was an acrylic polymer powder being shipped in large fabric totes.  However, because the material was not regulated as a hazardous material by the U.S. Department of Transportation, there was no emergency contact number required on the bill. Despite the fact that the material was not regulated, first responders were still reluctant to apply water, in part because the shipper was a chemical manufacturer and they knew that just because a material is not regulated does not mean that there are no hazards and that water application will always be appropriate. Instead, they contacted CHEMTREC. With its assistance, the responders were able contact the shipper, who then faxed a copy of the product’s material safety data sheet (MSDS) to the local fire department’s emergency communications office. While awaiting arrival of the MSDS at the scene, representatives from the shipper assured first responders that water and class B foam were acceptable extinguishing agents. However, first responders also learned that the product posed potential health problems as both a skin and a respiratory tract irritant. Only after this information was obtained, did first responders begin an aggressive fire attack using full firefighter protective clothing along with self-contained breathing apparatus.  They also used defensive tactics, including deck guns, to maintain distance between themselves and the burning material. 

Through disciplined efforts, the fire was extinguished with no personnel exposures, no injuries, and no damaged equipment.  In addition to these steps to protect themselves, first responders closed all lanes of the northbound interstate route while they waited to make the right decisions.  Without a doubt this was an inconvenience to the traveling public, especially commercial motor vehicles, yet first responders resisted any pressure to maintain at least even one lane of travel, fearing exposure to the smoke and water runoff.  They remembered that an inconvenience is temporary while dead is forever

With the incident under control and off to a successful start, the incident commander focused his attention on the cleanup of the smoldering remains. One of the first steps during any cleanup operation should always be to determine who will pay for the cleanup.  In most instances, the financial responsibility rests with the individual who was in control of the material at the time of its release. In this incident, it was decided that the carrier, a large interstate trucking company, would be responsible for cleanup because overheated brakes most likely served as an ignition source.  The carrier agreed to dispatch a representative from its insurance company to the scene.

First responders also asked local and state environmental agencies to have their personnel respond.  Remember that once the fire is extinguished, first responders have very little to do beyond maintaining control of the scene. Always let the responsible party, the environmental folks, and those knowledgeable about the product (in this case, the shipper) discuss the best options for cleanup. Be mindful, though, that you should ask questions regarding the impact of cleanup operations on your community.


It was determined that the remaining material could be disposed of as a solid waste at a “lined” landfill.  However, much of the trailer had been destroyed and most of the fabric totes had melted, leaving little more than large piles of powder remaining.  A cleanup contractor who could provide a front-end loader to scoop up the powder and an operator (who would wear chemical protective clothing and SCBA) were hired. Remember that if it is not safe for first responders to inhale the substance involved, it is not safe for a cleanup contractor to inhale it either.  Sometimes those involved in cleanup may fail to take basic safety precautions because they feel rushed to finish the job. Always be on the lookout for “shortcuts,” and remember that it is still your incident until the scene is declared safe. 

The contractor estimated he would need at least five large dump trucks to transport the material to the landfill; they were obtained from a local construction company.  However, there was concern that once these vehicles began to move, air circulation around the product could cause a potential “hot spot” in the load, which could ignite.  Therefore as a precaution, the state highway department delivered several truckloads of sand to the scene. The contractor’s front-end loader was then used to place a thick layer of sand on the top of each truckload of material, thereby serving as a “blanket” to reduce air flow. 

Another problem encountered during cleanup was that the landfill was not permitted to operate on Sundays.  Although the incident began on a Saturday, it extended into the following day; the trek to the landfill began early Sunday afternoon.  It took a proverbial “act of Congress” to contact the right folks Sunday morning who could grant the permission necessary to open the landfill.

Once the landfill was accessible, the procession of dump trucks from the incident scene included a police escort in the front and two fire apparatus following in the rear to deal with a possible fire in any of the loads.  Fortunately, the fire units were not needed for ignitions; however, they were used to thoroughly wash the inside of the bodies of the dump trucks prior to their release.  Runoff water from this operation was directed into the landfill.
During the time the product was being transported to the landfill, operations continued at the incident scene to remove what remained of the trailer. This required several more hours, since the acrylic polymer powder first had to be flushed from the trailer and then loaded by a crane onto a flatbed trailer.  After that, the contractor needed additional time to remove any powder that remained on the highway and shoulder to the satisfaction of environmental inspectors.   

From the initial response until the area was declared safe, the interstate route was closed for more than 15 hours; traffic backups extended for several miles.  During this time, volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel rotated crews throughout the incident, which seemed to some as if it would never end.  Although this was no doubt a challenging event for all involved as well as those affected by congested detour routes, the official incident report concluded with a statement indicating that there were no fatalities, no injuries, and no long-term environmental impacts.  What was not included in the report, but which cannot be overlooked, is that this positive outcome was primarily the result of  the actions of first responders who did all the right things that night and lived to tell about it.       

Questions or comments on this or any other monthly Hazardous Materials Survival Tip may be directed to Steven De Lisi at HazMatSurvivalTip@comcast.net.



Steven M. De Lisi recently retired from the fire service following a 27-year career that included serving as the deputy chief for the Virginia Air Guard Fire Rescue and a division chief for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). De Lisi is a hazardous materials specialist and as an adjunct instructor for VDFP; he continues to conduct hazardous materials Awareness- and Operations-level training. 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. He has also served as a hazardous materials officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. De Lisi has a master’s degree in public safety leadership and is the author of Hazardous Material Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response (Fire Engineering, 2006).


Subjects: Hazardous materials response, firefighter hazmat training

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

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