Be Prepared for Decontamination At Hazardous Materials Incidents

Be Prepared for Decontamination At Hazardous Materials Incidents


Fire officers should always have a concern for the proper decontamination of personnel who have been involved at hazardous materials incidents. Decontamination is that activity where the individual, clothing, apparatus and equipment are placed in a safe condition, based on the type of materials involved in the incident.

In each response and exposure, the officer in charge must identify the product involved, being alert to the nature of the exposure (leak, spill, fire) and the nature of the product (liquid, solid or gas). Different conditions clearly require different tactics.

As an officer in charge develops the tactics for a given incident, he must be alert to the potentials of smoke and water contamination, as well as the products of decomposition that may be in the immediate area of the incident. He must also review whether the material is toxic, corrosive, radioactive, etc.

Based on the judgment made, the most effective tactic may well be to avoid exposure, letting the material burn while removing all personnel and equipment to a safe area. Officers should recognize that many toxic materials involved in a fire may be rendered neutral by the extreme heat developed. On the other hand, an attack on a given incident may result in a cooling action which produces a heavier contamination within the smoke as well as the water runoff. A more extensive site cleanup may be required when an attack is made.

Wet by sprinklers, fire fighters are restricted to isolation area while decisions on possible exposure to hazardous materials and need for decontaminations are made.

Photos by Asst. Chief Michael May, Hyattstown, Md., Vot. F.D.

Major factor: weather

After the incident has been brought to a conclusion there is then the concern for the decontamination of personnel and equipment involved. A major deciding factor in the specific procedure used is the weather. Excessive heat or excessive cold will affect a decision to contaminate either at the scene or a remote location.

It is highly recommended that the officer in charge assign an officer to supervise decontamination. Hopefully, this activity will be coordinated through your emergency medical system. Industrial hygienists or medical consultants may be desired. A pre-incident plan for decontamination should be developed, with a list of resources required for that activity.

The officer in charge and the individual assigned to supervise decontamination must identify the contaminant and how it reacts with the body, whether by inhalation, ingestion or skin absorption. This is where the medical consultant or industrial hygienist can play a critical role. Your hazardous materials resource directory should be of assistance in this situation.

Select proper method

Once identification has been accomplished, the next logical step would be to determine the proper method of decontamination.

Will it be washing a liquid from the individual and his protective clothing with water? Or will it be a vacuum cleaner for dust or soot removal? We should avoid using a hose line on protective clothing that is covered with solid materials. The spray may scatter the solid materials, resulting in inhalation by anyone near by.

Remove breathing apparatus, protective clothing and even work clothing when no water is available. The key here is that the contaminant may penetrate any clothing, with the material being absorbed through the skin or causing a chemical burn to the individual.

Contaminants flushed off with water or vacuumed off must then be contained for proper disposal.

Of major concern in any decontamination effort is how personnel will be transferred to a decontamination or medical facility. It is our recommendation that a single vehicle be used if at all possible. This avoids multiple vehicle contamination. In the pre-incident plan, you should determine the availability of a bus for this activity. You may decide to have it dispatched immediately for specific incidents. If a bus is not readily available, is there a large rescue vehicle in which a number of individuals could be moved from the incident to the decontamination center?

Below 50 degrees

We recommend that the following concepts be considered if the temperature is below 50 degrees:

  • Transport to a decontamination center with protective clothing on, or
  • If the contaminant is of such a serious nature that there is a respiratory problem, then it may be advisable to remove the protective clothing prior to transport (the clothing may well hold
Fire fighters doff environmental suits while awaiting determination of decontamination needs.
  • the respiratory contaminant and release it within the confined space of the mode of transportation), or
  • Transport personnel with their breathing apparatus on. Concerns for distance of transport and adequate air supply must be addressed if this mode is chosen.

With each of these options, the officer in charge must be alert to the time required to obtain the transport vehicle, whether the personnel are wet and experiencing chill, and whether the material is wet or dry.

Removing clothing with dry materials on them at the scene, prior to transport, is advisable. Care must be taken to avoid creating a dust condition. Personnel should keep breathing apparatus on during the clothing removal. Clothing and breathing apparatus must be bagged and held for later inspection and decontamination—or destruction.

Those personnel assisting should be protected, too. This may be done with a filter-type respirator, gloves and throwaway garments.

At the scene

When decontaminating at the scene, regardless of temperature, a specific area should be established for this activity. It should be identified, barricaded and restricted to entry. Following decontamination of personnel, that area must also be decontaminated.

The method of transportation (with or without protective clothing and breathing apparatus) is directly related to the type of contaminant and the probability of inhalation of that contaminant or skin absorption by the contaminant penetrating the clothing. In extremely cold temperatures personnel may suffer shock from any hosing and removal of clothing done at the scene—unless immediate warm transportation is available.

What would you use for your decontamination center? The following are recommended: a hospital, fire station, training center, industrial locations, swimming pool with use of the wading area, a school. Regardless of the site selected, the officer in charge must be concerned with the collection of any runoff water used for decontamination and the decontamination of that facility.

If you choose a hospital, be alert to the potential expense involved. A recent survey of Montgomery County, Md., hospitals resulted in a quote by one of $40 to $100 per person, dependent on what would be required. Others would not even offer an estimate because most are not prepared to handle decontamination.

If the ambient temperature is above 50 degrees, we would recommend that initial decontamination occur at the scene, followed by transportation to a decontamination facility. Initial decontamination would result in the individual being hosed down, with the appropriate removal and collection of protective clothing, respiratory protection and work clothing. The individual would then be transported to the previously selected decontamination center.


The overall technique for decontamination may vary, but we recommend these steps for consideration:

  1. Hose or shower with water from above and down over the individual, never at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Remove clothing in this order: the helmet, disconnect the low-pressure hose and remove the air pack, gloves, coat (keeping hands off the exterior shell; a helper with gloves may be required), boots and hunker pants, the facepiece, work clothing and underwear.
  3. Soap and shower twice.
  4. Body check by a qualified technician.
  5. Replace clothing. When an individual has been decontaminated, you should make provisions for clothing. This could he in the form of the paper throwaway type or coveralls. It is highly recommended that all fire fighters keep a complete set of clothing in their own locker for such incidents.
  6. Begin treatment.
  7. Health monitoring.

Neutralization is required where acid or alkalies are involved. The treatment may he necessary at the scene on an immediate basis when the individual comes in contact with the material. Then a follow-up would be necessary at the decontamination center. Acids or alkalies can penetrate the normal fire fighter protective clothing, resulting in burns to the body. In a situation involving acids and alkalies, modesty cannot be considered. The diluted but not neutralized corrosive material can lie and collect in the waistband of underwear or in socks and shoes of the individual. Many have sustained second and third-degree burns from corrosives for failing to immediately remove their clothing.

Staging area where fire fighters remain with I their unit is a key control of incident.An Incident commander gives direction to fire fighters dressed in environmental suits prior to their approach to a chemical spill.

Medication and definitive treatment are as prescribed by the medical adviser. We cannot overemphasize the need for proper identification of the material so that the medical personnel can prescribe the proper medication. An incident that occurred last Feb. 27 demonstrated this. A chemical spill at the Environmental Laboratories in Hanover, Va., a northern Richmond suburb, sent 24 people to the hospital. The material was first identified as diborane, a flammable gas used in the making of rocket fuel. Later tests indicated that the material was pentaborane, another rocket fuel ingredient “10 times more lethal than diborane.”

Health monitoring

To effectively monitor personnel within your department, you first must develop a data base from a pre-employment or membership physical that includes the appropriate blood gas analysis.

When an incident has occurred, and following decontamination, your medical adviser should conduct a thorough examination of the individual to establish the current data. Your medical adviser then has a reference point and an exposure point. Significant changes in these two would give an indication of toxicological effect.

This current, or post-incident, data would include noting in an appropriate record the date, time, material, its physical properties and the time of exposure, as well as appropriate blood gas work, blood pressure, respirations and pulse, urine analysis and dosimeter check.

Depending on the material involved, the medical adviser may want to make an additional medical evaluation of the same items a week, month or even six months from the given incident.

We cannot overemphasize the need to maintain adequate records of any exposure. Each fire fighter should have an appropriate log within his personnel jacket that would indicate each hazardous materials exposure incident. It may be the option to maintain this record with the medical record. Some jurisdictions have separated such records for confidentiality. This is a point where the medical consultant must be involved.

Equipment decontamination

Meanwhile, back at the site. All clothing, if contaminated, should be bagged for containment and confinement until appropriate analysis can be completed. This may well require a gas chromatographic analysis of the clothing based on the contaminant.

SCBA should be treated in the same way, i.e., bagged, contained and confined. The situation may require replacement of diaphragms, straps and facepieces.

Tools, appliances and hose are a major problem. They should be secured in a proper facility while further investigation is done. Tools and other metal appliances can undoubtedly be hosed down. Decontamination of hose will be a much more difficult problem. The fabric itself can be impregnated with the contaminant, holding it for a long period of time.

When we consider decontamination of apparatus, it does provide a mindboggling situation. There are many nooks and crannies where contaminant particles may lie. They can be in the seats, the hose bed, the pump panel, etc. We would recommend that the unit be appropriately hosed down and confined until experienced specialists can be sought to check for any hidden contaminants.

The fire scene itself requires expertise to evaluate the problem. We have a responsibility to the people and environment. There should be concern for water removal, the water table itself, the saturated ground and the debris.

Financial responsibility

Whenever we attempt to have such cleanup done, the officer in charge must recognize the financial responsibilities involved. Simply calling in a commercial hazardous materials recovery team without securing proper financial clearance could result in a major expense to the department or jurisdiction involved.

As you consider the various supplies required, you may want to review the materials used to decontaminate. For the most part, water is the number one item, but many materials are not water soluble and another procedure must be used. If water is used, then how do you hold, contain, neutralize and remove it from the scene or a decontamination center?

Use of a cut-off 55-gallon drum, a child’s wading pool, a portable drafting tank or specially designed holding tanks may be required. Hospitals and industrial locations in your area may already have diversion and holding tanks for just this purpose. Chemical plants usually have chemical sewer systems that collect all chemical spills into a central holding basin for neutralization.

If you have a solid material and have used a vacuum cleaner, how do you handle the decontamination of that unit and disposal of solid material? If absorbents were used, what procedures are used to dispose of them? In both cases it may require special permits to use sanitary landfills. Or the materials may be incinerated if such facilities exist.

In the overall process of decontamination of protective and work clothing the officer in charge must consider the equipment used to wash these items. Is there a chance of residual contaminants staying in that machinery? Experts should be found to inspect such equipment after use. In some situations it may be advisable to destroy all clothing worn. This could be by landfill burial or incineration.

If technical help is not found prior to an incident, personnel may be subjected to health problems which could have been avoided if a decontamination procedure had been developed.

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