Hazmat Survival Tips: Actions of First Responders at Hazmat Incidents

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 30

By Steven De Lisi

In the previous Hazardous Materials Survival Tip, we looked at a list of 10 common errors committed by first responders during hazardous materials incidents. This list was compiled during my more than 25 years in the fire service, many of which were spent directly training first responders on how to avoid becoming victims during these types of events. This month’s column provides some examples of how first responders, despite having received adequate training, either got into trouble or had a near-miss, usually during the first few minutes after arriving on-scene. The intent here is to learn from their experiences and prevent similar occurrences. The next Survival Tip will present examples of how first responders were able to successfully avert disaster when faced with serious hazardous material incidents and ensure their safe return home.

1. An engine company responded to a report of an overturned truck containing a hazardous material. On arrival, they did not detect a release of the truck’s contents, but they observed a leak from the vehicle’s fuel tanks. Wanting to be prepared for a possible fire resulting from the leaking fuel, they correctly laid and charged a preconnected handline with firefighters at the ready. Unfortunately, the fire apparatus was parked next to the overturned truck; when asked why they were so close, they replied that their longest preconnected line was only 200 feet long. Instead of this approach, they could have greatly increased their safety by parking several hundred feet away and setting up a three-inch supply line (there was 1,000 feet of three-inch on the truck) with a gated wye, to which the preconnected line could then have been attached.

2. A local fire department was conducting a critique of a recent incident involving an overturned cargo tank hauling highly flammable inks. This was an extremely dangerous situation: The tanker rolled onto its left side as it crossed two lanes of travel at high speed on an interstate route, landing in a grassy median area. There was minimal release of product, and the cargo tank and tractor were successfully removed several hours later from the scene. During the incident, numerous photographs were taken; they were included as a slide presentation during the critique session. One photo was of particular interest to all in attendance, as it clearly showed several caps from road flares (used by the first-arriving police officers to block the left lane of travel closest to the overturned vehicle) situated on the roadway in close proximity to the cargo tank. First responders, including those from law enforcement, fire, and EMS agencies, must always look for clues regarding the involvement of flammable liquids during a hazardous materials incident. In this case, clues included several flammable liquid placards clearly visible on the rear of the cargo tank.

3. An EMS crew responded to an incident that involved an adult male who reportedly “did not feel well.” The patient had arrived home from work when he became ill. An assessment by EMS personnel did not reveal any reason for the illness, and so a decision was made to transport the patient to a hospital for further evaluation. On arrival at the hospital, the attending medic was nauseous and vomiting. It was then learned that the patient had been spraying a chemical at work earlier in the day in a manner that required an overhead application of the material and that his clothing had been exposed to significant amounts of overspray. This information had not been revealed to the medics prior to transport, and they failed to ask about the patient’s activities prior to his becoming ill. The patient was still wearing his contaminated work clothing when he arrived at the hospital. Besides the negative effects suffered by the patient and first responders, this incident had the potential to contaminate the hospital emergency room (ER).. However, on seeing the first responder vomiting from the back of the ambulance, ER personnel realized that this was not a good sign and had first responders and the patient decontaminated prior to allowing them inside.

4. A first responder received a subpoena to appear in court as a witness for the prosecution regarding an incident that involved the use of several homemade incendiary devices. Several glass soft drink bottles had been filled with a flammable liquid and outfitted with rags stuffed into the bottle openings. The rags were then ignited and thrown at a single-family residence. The devices failed to work as intended, and first responders needed only to extinguish small grass fires in the areas where the devices had landed. The prosecuting attorney had learned from a police officer that the first responder had positively identified the material inside the devices as “gasoline.” When the prosecutor asked how this determination had been made, the first responder replied that he had “sniffed it.” The first responder did not appear in court. Besides the potential for the first responder to suffer immediate health problems, there is always the possibility of long-term effects from exposure, some of which may not become evident for years. The best solution for this incident would have been for law enforcement to take a sample of the material as evidence for laboratory analysis.

5. A highway cargo tank overturned while traveling along an interstate highway exit ramp. The vehicle came to rest on its side. Prior to any effort to upright the vehicle, a decision was made to offload the product. However, after learning that the material would need to be heated for this to be accomplished, it was determined that the vehicle would be recovered while still fully loaded. Rather than consult with the company that owned the vehicle for its assistance in contracting with a vehicle recovery service, the local fire chief instead allowed law enforcement personnel to contact the next wrecker service on its standard rotation list of available companies. The first wrecker driver on-scene was not capable of conducting a vehicle recovery of this magnitude; but rather than relinquish the job, he subcontracted to another company who owned inflatable air bags. However, this company had just received the bags and was unsure of how to use them. Like the first wrecker driver, he was unwilling to give up the job, and so he in turn subcontracted with another company for an individual who could provide on-scene direction for use of the new air bags. Total cost for the recovery bill was in excess of $10,000. In addition to the excessive cost, had the wrecker driver decided to use the air bags without consulting someone knowledgeable about their operation, the tank could have been severely damaged during efforts to upright it, with the potential for a major release of product along with serious injuries, or worse, to anyone nearby. The trucking company indicated that it had standing contracts with experienced wrecker services for these types of incidents and was frustrated that it had never been consulted regarding plans for recovery efforts.

6. A local fire chief called one Monday morning for assistance in disposing of a “red bag” suspected of containing medical waste. He indicated that the bag had been found during the weekend along an interstate median by one of his medic units while it was returning from a hospital run. Wanting to be good citizens and prevent potential harm to their community from the bag’s contents, the crew of the medic unit removed the bag from the scene. When questioned as to the current location of the bag, the chief replied that he had found it in his office when he came to work that day. Remember that on most occasions, whoever owns the property where abandoned hazardous materials are located is also responsible for the removal of the material. In this case, the property owner was the state highway department, and it already had contracts with cleanup companies to handle situations such as this. First responders just never called them.

7. Members of a first-arriving engine company at a hazardous materials incident had just completed training, where they learned emergency decontamination procedures consisting of a full body wash of the victim, then removal of the individual’s clothing followed by another full body wash. They practiced using hoselines from apparatus and were confident in their ability to conduct this vital task with minimal delay. On their arrival at this incident, they encountered a box truck with a small leak of a flammable liquid from the rear door. They met with the truck driver, who indicated that prior to their arrival he had attempted to open the door to investigate the source of the leak and that in the process, he had gotten some of the liquid on his hands. Hearing of the driver’s contamination with a hazardous material and remembering their recent training, they immediately doused the driver with a booster line, removed all of his clothing and doused him again. No attempt is made here to second-guess their actions, as some may argue that the first responders acted appropriately in suspecting full-body contamination that required aggressive intervention. However, we must always keep in mind an attempt to balance our aggressiveness with common sense; in this case, a thorough hand washing likely would have sufficed.

8. A call was received from a local contractor supply company indicating that a general delivery truck at its loading dock was leaking what appeared to be a clear liquid from the side of the truck. The driver had told them a five-gallon bucket that had overturned was the source of the release and that the material involved was not a hazardous material. First responders who initially arrived on-scene were lulled into a false sense of security by the driver’s comments. They, along with the driver, entered the box truck to investigate further. When questioned as to why they allowed themselves to get so close to the source of the release, they responded that the material was “only” a Class 9 hazardous material, which they believed meant that it was just a “miscellaneous material” with no real potential for harm to people. Although they were correct in that the material involved in this incident was not as bad as others, such as liquid oxidizers or flammable solids, all chemicals, whether or not they are regulated by the Department of Transportation as hazardous materials, have the potential to harm people, property, and the environment. There was little to be gained from their scouting mission, especially without the use of any protective clothing. The problem belonged to the trucking company, and the best approach for first responders would have been to isolate the area, prevent the spread of the leaking product to nearby storm drains, and have the company hire a cleanup contractor to remove the spilled material from the ground and the inside of the truck. We must always strive to avoid becoming part of any problem, especially when there is little to be gained from our intervention.

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 as an adjunct instructor for VDFP. He continues to conduct hazardous materials awareness and operations-level training programs for fire suppression and EMS personnel. 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; in that capacity, he 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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