Hazmat Survival Tips: Beyond the Rule of Thumb

Survival Tip 49

By Steven De Lisi

With this edition of Hazmat Survival Tips, the column enters its fifth consecutive year of publication. Since 2006, the focus of each article has been the survival of first responders, not only in a physical sense but also in a financial and political sense. Although the safety of first responders will always trump money and politics, anyone with experience in the fire service knows that all three areas include risks that must be managed appropriately.

You may have noticed that the title of each article includes the phrase, “Beyond the Rule of Thumb.” When I began my training in hazardous materials response in 1982, reference to the rule of thumb was something we heard quite frequently when discussing our strategies for responding to a hazardous materials incident. Although “rule of thumb” is generally defined as a procedure or rule based on experience or practice, we used it in the sense that if you could cover your view of the incident with your thumb, you were far enough away. Although this approach correctly emphasizes the defensive strategy that is a necessary element during some incidents, there are times when first responders may decide to intervene, most notably when lives are at stake. Remember, anyone can step up to the plate and get involved; being able to do so while still achieving a positive outcome when considering the physical, financial, and political risks requires adequate training.

As a hazardous materials officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, my role was to serve as a state coordinator during emergencies involving hazardous materials. In that capacity, I fielded hundreds of calls from first responders who were on the scene of incidents that involved anything from a broken bottle of pesticide in a residence to an overturned truck carrying explosives to individuals who had been exposed to a chemical and were in need of immediate medical care. This was in addition to the avalanche of calls received over the course of several weeks following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that were related to citizens concerned about anthrax. When I took the job in 1997, I was informed by the agency’s division director that there was a zero tolerance for injury to first responders and the public It was with this mindset that I approached each call, and this same theme has served as the basis for each Hazmat Survival Tip during the past four years.  

Because my assigned region served more than 20 localities that included urban cities, small towns, suburban counties, and rural areas, I was exposed to situations involving first responders from departments with their own hazardous materials response team as well as those that had to wait almost two hours for a team to arrive on-scene. In these latter incidents, I quickly learned that a lot could go wrong during an hour-long wait. On the other hand, a lot could also go right, and the difference was almost always dependent on the training first responders had received regarding the selection of appropriate strategies and tactics when dealing with hazardous materials incidents. Would they rely on the rule of thumb, or would they choose to intervene? If they did intervene, would they achieve a favorable outcome? Would they go home?

The content of almost every Hazmat Survival Tip is based on incidents I responded to over the course of my more than 25 years as a hazardous materials officer, firefighter, and member of a hazardous materials response team. In addition to official findings from formal critique sessions, there were many more times I would make personal notes regarding the outcome of an incident and the extent to which additional training could have made a difference. Although the basic hazardous materials response training provided to most first responders is likely sufficient in that it meets national standards, I have never been satisfied with the status quo and have always looked for ways to improve operational safety and effectiveness even more. My goal has always been to go beyond the rule of thumb.

Over the years, as the folder where my notes were stored grew in size, I wanted to share my thoughts with first responders and began to incorporate some “real world” anecdotes into local hazardous material awareness and operation classes conducted during recruit training programs. Realizing this audience was limited in scope, I then looked to Fire Engineering for a way to reach a far greater audience and presented the concept of Hazmat Survival Tips. Thankfully, they accepted the proposal and, since then, the series has covered topics ranging from atmospheric monitors to environmental crimes to fuming trash trucks. All of the Hazmat Survival Tips published to date can be found HERE.

In addition to Hazmat Survival Tips, PennWell was supportive of my desire to publish a book entitled, Hazardous Material Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response. As with Hazmat Survival Tips, the book provides first responders with an array of topics to help ensure that they will always stay part of the solution during a hazardous materials incident instead of becoming part of the problem. Included are examples of the “real world” application of standards and regulations developed to ensure the safe handling of hazardous materials. Despite what some may think, there is almost always a difference between what is written down in the rule books and what happens on the street. The difference may surprise even experienced first responders. As I discovered early in my career, surprises during any emergency incident are often the prelude to serious injury and death. All proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in support of their efforts to reduce line-of-duty deaths through its Life Safety Initiatives.

Although the Hazmat Survival Tips column has thus far covered specific topics related to hazardous materials response, beginning in March 2010, the column will provide details of actual incidents along with lessons learned. Each will emphasize the extent to which first responders chose to intervene and how they did so in a safe and effective manner. Until then, never forget that every time you leave your fire station on an emergency response, the most important thing you will ever do while on that call is to perform so that you will return home safe.

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

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