Beyond the Rule of Thumb
It’s summer. Although first responders already enduring high heat and humidity during fire suppression operations don’t need to hear this, it is worth discussing how summer weather conditions can affect those dealing with a hazardous materials incident. High heat and humidity can have a negative impact on personnel and equipment and influence the behavior of chemicals and containers.
Survival Tip 53
Without a doubt, personnel wearing chemical protective clothing are at a high risk for heat-related illnesses. This warning applies not only to fully encapsulating vapor protective ensembles but also to liquid splash clothing and firefighter protective ensemble. Some ways to minimize the potential for negative health effects include adequate hydration of all personnel on scene. It is also important to encourage those on duty to be adequately hydrated even before an incident occurs. One nonscientific recommendation is to drink enough water throughout the workday (and even before coming on duty) so that your urine appears clear. Be careful not to drink too much water or other fluids; doing so can have negative health consequences as well.
Temperature affects almost all chemicals. The potential for chemicals to react and undergo changes increases as the temperature of the material increases. In addition, materials with greater volatility may produce higher levels of dangerous vapors at elevated temperatures. When dealing with liquids, those with high vapor pressure and low boiling points should be of particular concern. Also, first responders should be aware of a material’s melting point, if any, when dealing with solids.
Protecting the public during summer months can present some unique challenges to first responders. Probably the greatest challenge involves the sheer number of people who are outdoors. It is much easier for an instructor in an emergency management training program to recommend “protect in place” than it is for first responders to accomplish this in the real world. Consider an urban area when many of those working in high-rise office buildings escape during lunch to enjoy the weather on a sunny weekday afternoon. Under these conditions, the potential for a large number of people to be exposed to a hazardous material vapor cloud is far greater than it would be on a day of cold driving rain in January. Other examples include large gatherings at outdoor concerts, beaches, and sporting events. Simply put, more people outdoors presents the potential for more exposures.
Although there is much that can be done to protect personnel and equipment during the summer months, nothing will ever take the place of common sense when dealing with high heat and humid conditions. Remember, too, that there is no such thing as a routine hazardous materials incident. As experienced first responders know, every incident is unique and summer incidents always require an extra level of care and attention to ensure that everyone goes home.
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).
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Subjects: Hazardous materials response, firefighter hazmat training
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