Hazmat Survival Tips: Terrorism, Sabotage, and Accidents — Is There a Difference?

By Steve De Lisi

Although there are several definitions for the term “terrorism,” one that is relevant to first responders can be found in U.S. Code Title 22, which states that, “terrorism means a premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.” The results from these acts of violence include a large number of casualties; fires; structural collapse; and possible exposure of victims and first responders to chemical, biological, or nuclear materials.

Although the potential for these types of incidents is a concern for first responders, it is important to remember that an act of terrorism as defined here is more closely related to the “cause” rather than the “effect.” Similar effects can be achieved through accidents or through acts of sabotage such as that which may be inflicted by a disgruntled employee. Although during the initial stages of an incident the cause may be unknown, the initial response by firefighters, law enforcement, and EMS personnel most likely will be similar. The greatest difference will take place with respect to which agencies have responsibility for investigation and prosecution. 
Take, for example, the plane crash in Queens, New York, on November 12, 2001. With this incident occurring so soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks, many assumed that this was another act of terrorism. However, it was soon learned that the crash was the result of a combination of pilot error and equipment malfunction, thus shifting much of the burden for investigation of the incident to the National Transportation Safety Board as opposed to law enforcement agencies. Regardless of the determination of responsibility for this tragic event, the response by the emergency community was the same: a large passenger plane down in a heavily populated area with several fully involved structure fires and numerous casualties.
In the metro Richmond, Virginia, region several years ago, firefighters were dispatched to an early-morning vehicle fire. On their arrival, they noticed severe damage to the vehicle, likely caused by some type of explosion. Realizing that this was not “just a vehicle fire,” and concerned about the possibility of subsequent explosions, the crew maintained a safe distance and allowed the fire to burn itself out. The investigation into the cause of this incident revealed a “lover’s triangle,” with the bombing suspect attempting to kill the lover of his estranged wife. Although this could have been a car bomb detonated for political purposes, the firefighting response did not change:  Recognize the hazard; isolate and deny entry; and call for assistance, beginning at the local level. Only when local law enforcement suspects anything beyond an accident or an act of sabotage would state or federal officials likely be notified.
Recently I observed a highway cargo tank hauling a corrosive liquid parked on the shoulder of an exit ramp from I-95. The ramp had a fairly steep downhill grade with a traffic signal at the bottom. Could a tour bus loaded with passengers attempting to exit on this ramp lose its brakes on the downhill grade and slam into the cargo tank? Of course it could; just as a few days earlier, a car did crash into a tractor-trailer parked on the shoulder of the same interstate just a few miles away. In this real-world incident, the truck was hauling furniture and there were only two passengers in the car. 
What would the incident involving a crash between the corrosive-laden cargo tank and the loaded tour bus look like? A mass-casualty incident with exposure to a dangerous chemical and the possibility of fire and entrapment. It would be considered a terrible accident until proven otherwise; yet, for first responders, it would be a very dangerous and difficult response regardless of the cause.
What does this comparison among accidents, sabotage, and terrorism mean for first responders? Simply, that those who downplay the need to prepare for a “terrorist” event because they believe that they are not the epicenter of politically motivated attacks overlook the potential for accidents or acts of sabotage that can result in mass-casualty incidents with equal or perhaps greater potential than a terrorist act. 
The cause of an incident will have more of an impact on who investigates rather than how you respond. This, in turn, should serve as motivation to practice mass decontamination skills and triage involving chemical injuries in addition to those caused by a vehicle crash or explosion, and response for a mass-casualty incident that involves not only coordination of ambulances and hospitals but decontamination of a large number of patients at hospital emergency rooms.
Your department may have a lot of emergency response equipment that was recently purchased with federal or state grants. I remember that at hazardous material emergency response trade shows prior to September 11, 2001, the concept of equipment for mass decontamination was often a no-show. Afterward, it was a common sight, with everyone vying for piece of the financial pie made available by these grants. For too many years, we were way behind the curve, for all along the potential for devastating mass-casualty accidents involving chemicals was there. Now many of us have the equipment, but because it was bought as part of a “homeland security” grant and the threat of terrorism has waned in the mind of many first responders, it might just be a dust collector.   
Despite the equipment purchased for a specific purpose, it most likely won’t be there when you need it. When you are the first to arrive on the scene of the tractor-trailer vs. bus incident discussed earlier, no one will have time to wait for the decontamination trailer or special chemical clothing to arrive. Your engine and your crew will be expected to take immediate action. What will you do? Although it is important to train with the specialized equipment you have, if you haven’t trained for this type of event without the availability of this equipment, you are likely in store for a large dose of reality shock when it does occur.  
You may also want to consider a drill that involves an explosion at a factory or warehouse that stores or manufactures chemicals with subsequent building collapse and entrapment of contaminated victims. Could this incident be an act of terrorism or sabotage or a terrible accident? Regardless of the cause and related issues of jurisdictional authority for the investigation, you have other, more immediate, concerns. Can members of your tactical rescue team wear chemical protective clothing? Do members of the hazardous materials team know anything about emergency response to collapsed buildings? And even if they are cross-trained, would chemical protective clothing provide members of an entry team with protection from objects that could abrade, tear, or burn the suit? 
All too often, hazardous material teams train for incidents involving leaking containers in situations where there is time afforded to assess all possible hazards to first responders and to fill out reams of paperwork related to desired strategy and tactics. But in the real world when a life is at stake, whether as a result of terrorism or an accident, time is of the essence. In a situation such as this, would structural firefighters’ protective clothing provide limited protection against chemical exposure for an expedient entry (as suggested in the 2008 Emergency Response Guidebook) to perform an immediate rescue or to control a leak? If this is an act of terrorism involving an explosive device, is there the possibility of a secondary device intended to detonate after the arrival of first responders?         

These life-and-death situations are further complicated with issues related to identifying chemicals that may be involved. Some members of hazardous material teams are way too comfortable with their ability to wait for a material safety data sheet (MSDS) or to call CHEMTREC® for assistance. But although an MSDS may be available for a chemical release involving an overturned cargo tank, this will not be the case with terrorist events or acts of sabotage. And even during an accidental transportation incident, there may not be time to wait for the MSDS if contaminated victims are dying from chemical exposure right before your eyes. When these situations occur, first responders will need to provide immediate field decontamination followed by prehospital care based on consultation with physicians regarding the signs and symptoms exhibited by victims all the while taking precautions to avoid becoming victims themselves.

There are no simple solutions for mass-casualty incidents that involve fires, explosions, chemical exposure, and structural collapse. Yet believing that these situations would result only from an act of terrorism and confident that your locale is immune based on its lack of political targets only ignores the reality of accidents and sabotage and sets first responders up for disastrous results should an incident occur. 

Next month’s column will discuss steps to develop and execute an exercise for these types of events.

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 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.

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

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