Hazmat Survival Tips: Hazardous Materials Incident Size-Up

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 37

By Steven De Lisi

First responders are well aware that any emergency incident size-up begins with dispatch. During that early phase, responders consider the nature of the call, its location, the time of day, and other factors. The type and number of units responding tells the incident commander the resources he will have on-scene. Although first responders need this data to prepare themselves mentally for the tasks at hand, how many consider the possibility of hazardous material involvement?

In one instance, an engine company responded to a report of a vehicle fire in a parking garage. On arrival, firefighters did not observe any smoke conditions or find a complainant at the garage’s entrance to direct them to the vehicle involved. They searched for the vehicle and, on reaching the uppermost deck, suddenly encountered a white smoke plume. Unfortunately, the “smoke” was actually highly toxic vapors issuing from a five-gallon bucket containing a chemical used to seal pavement cracks. The contractor, who had finished work for the day, had improperly mixed the material and left it in the open container. The result: Several firefighters were exposed to the vapors and injured.

During a similar event, firefighters responded to a report of a small fire in the rear of a shopping center. On arrival, they discovered a device consisting of a small metal pan (shaped like a barbecue grill) on a propane burner. Inside the container was the chemical perchloroethylene, a material often used in dry cleaning. The unsuspecting first-arriving crew was exposed to these vapors and suffered eye, nose, and throat irritation as a result. An investigation determined that an employee of a dry cleaning business at the site was “cooking” the material to dispose of it, instead of disposing of this dangerous chemical in accordance with governing hazardous waste regulations. The business tried to save money, and our folks paid the price.

Although some incidents are intentional, others are accidental. Careless citizens are easier to forgive than those who knowingly violate safe work practices, but the results are often the same. For example, an engine company was dispatched in predawn hours to a trash fire. On arrival, first responders discovered a small fire at the curb in front of a single-family residence. The responders attempted to use water to extinguish the fire, but the fire reacted with explosions and brightly colored blue and green flames. First responders immediately retreated to safety. They soon discovered that other homeowners in the same block had placed their large plastic trash cans for pickup later that day. The “trash fire” was actually a burning trash can that had transformed into a pool of molten plastic which reacted violently when water was applied. The homeowner later admitted to disposing hot coals from a cooking grill in the trash. No firefighters were injured during this incident, but it certainly got their attention and encouraged them to consider a similar potential the next time they were dispatched to a “trash” fire.

At another incident, an engine company responded during early morning hours to a report of a “gas” leak following a motor vehicle accident. En route, they anticipated a minor leak from the vehicle’s gasoline tank. However, on arrival, they discovered that the incident was anything but minor. A car had plowed through an apartment building, sheared off a natural gas meter at its base, and ended up inside an apartment’s kitchen. Natural gas was filling the building. The company officer frantically requested a full assignment with upgrades for a rescue company, but he realized that the delayed dispatch of additional resources would significantly decrease his ability to evacuate the building and deal with the vehicle’s entrapped occupant. The three firefighters from the first-due unit were forced to evacuate several apartment units while many occupants were asleep. They also assessed the patient’s condition, all while dealing with the uncontrolled flow of natural gas-the line had been broken off at a point below the valve at the meter base. Had the initial company known the extent of this incident when dispatched and that it involved a natural gas leak, the proper additional resources needed would have arrived along with the initial company.

Although firefighters all too often fall prey to these types of events, emergency medical service (EMS) personnel are also potential victims. Calls for patients with difficulty breathing or who just don’t feel well can involve an exposure to hazardous materials. and first responders can very easily become part of the problem. In one instance, an EMS crew was dispatched to a call for “difficulty breathing” at a residence where the patient was known to them as a “frequent flyer.” Firefighters had been there many times before and had no reason to suspect this run would be any different: Take vitals, administer oxygen, and transport. This time, however, the medics noticed an unusual odor soon after entering the home. They retreated outdoors, but not before they became ill. An investigation indicated that the home had been improperly treated for termites earlier in the day, and pesticide vapors had been allowed to enter the residence. Fortunately, the medics recovered, but they gained a greater respect for never assuming anything on a call, no matter how many times they’ve been there before.

Of course, although EMS crews have their “frequent flyer” calls, firefighters face similar situations with fire alarm activations. Firefighters making numerous runs to the same location for an alarm malfunction may become complacent. They are mentally unprepared for the “big one” when they roll around the corner for the 10th time that day and confront smoke and flames blowing out the windows.

Residents setting off “bug bombs” in their homes and apartments can activate fire alarms, especially when they use more than one device. They may mistakenly believe that if one bomb will kill the bugs, three or four will make sure they never come back. However, this also produces a concentrated toxic chemical brew; firefighters thinking this is just another false alarm have a big surprise in store.

Fire sprinkler activations can also pose potential problems for unsuspecting first responders. In one situation, although the sprinkler head flow quickly extinguished a chemical reaction fire in an open-head drum, before the fire department arrived and shut off the sprinkler head, the water discharged filled the drum with water and spilled its hazardous contents on the floor. Initial-arriving firefighters were exposed to this runoff and unknowingly carried the material outside of the building on their boots. Since this was a structure fire, no “hazardous materials decontamination” was established and as a result, several firefighters were exposed to the material.

Although first responders are taught during Awareness and Operations training that any incident can involve hazardous materials, many believe incidents such as those discussed here will never happen to them. That is, until it does. Always take the time to think about hazardous materials during size-up!

Send questions or comments on this or any other monthly Hazardous Materials Survival Tip to Steven De Lisi at HazMatSurvivalTip@comcast.net

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

Steven M. De Lisi is employed by Tetra Tech EM Inc. as a program manager responsible for planning, training, and exercise activities related to hazardous materials response. He 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 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 dealing with hazardous materials incidents in a region that included more than 20 local jurisdictions. De Lisi holds a master’s degree in public safety leadership and is the author of the textbook entitled Hazardous Material Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response, published by PennWell.

Subjects: hazardous materials incident response, size-up

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