During the past few years, the fire service has spent a lot of time discussing weapons of mass destruction and developing a basic understanding of terrorism. This was an important step for our nation’s first responders to take and for our fire departments to invest time in. But remember that training for terrorism is in many ways like training for trench rescue: The training is necessary, but it is very unlikely that most responders will actually confront such an incident.

The result of this focus on acts of terror is that we have, in certain cases, allowed our core hazardous-materials response competencies to fall by the wayside among our frontline companies. Plain old haz-mat accidents continue to happen every day and will continue to happen. We need to get back to the basics in haz mat, just as we did with firefighting after the initial rush of technical rescue several years ago. We need to think about leaking MC-306/DOT-406 cargo tank trucks and one-ton chlorine cylinders again and set the attack with nerve agents on the back burner as we brush up on the basics. This back-to-basics program will be most helpful for engine and truck company officers and firefighters.

First-due fire companies will initially recognize many haz-mat incidents. Your engine crew may be dispatched for the “odor investigation,” for example, and arrive at a construction site to find a drum leaking an unknown substance. Your truck crew may be assigned to investigate an “unknown alarm” going off, called in by a cell phone caller, of course, and find that it is a chlorine alarm at a local pool. It is the first-due company that will initiate the haz-mat response team’s (HMRT) action and set the stage for the incident.

Members who aren’t certified haz-mat technicians sometimes feel that there is little they can do between calling for the response team and that team’s arrival. That is far from true. Taking small but crucial steps in the first minutes will dramatically improve the course of the entire incident. What, then, can our first-due responders, our awareness- and operations-trained personnel, do to make this situation better without exceeding the scope of their training? They can keep themselves and the local civilian population out of the hazardous area and establish the incident management system (IMS).

From the dispatch of the first company, the incident management process begins. There are several variations on the IMS, and each department should select its own system. The IMS must be outlined in department policies and procedures; the department’s standard operating guidelines (SOGs) should address the scope of implementing the system. The Illinois Fire Service Institute’s (IFSI) five-step incident management process is particularly useful. In this model responders are taught to do the following:

1. Isolate an incident.

2. Identify the product and hazards.

3. Notify needed resources and required agencies.

4. Mitigate the hazard.

5. Terminate the incident.

The isolating, identifying, and notifying tasks may not necessarily be performed in that order; steps are taken as needed according to the incident’s severity and the incident commander’s priorities. Specific tasks may be accomplished early in an incident and later revisited or revised as the scene changes. We will discuss later specific tasks that the first-due company can perform within the scope of its training, which should be at a minimum the operations level. This will set the stage for a successful incident conclusion using the five-step incident management process.

Note that the HMRT will most likely revisit all of these steps on arrival and may change the operational concept the first-due companies have implemented. These changes will be based on more detailed science and research, monitoring, and the effects of the actions initially taken by the first-arriving companies.


The first-arriving company will determine how best to isolate the incident in the early stages. Ideally, any incident that sounds like it may potentially involve a haz-mat release will prompt the company officer to request wind direction and speed from the fire alarm office and to instruct the apparatus driver/operator to approach from an uphill and upwind direction. Additionally, the apparatus should be backed down to the incident, if possible, to allow for a quick retreat if there is a sudden change in conditions, or if the incident is determined to be larger than initially believed. These actions will have the greatest positive effect on member safety in the early stages and should be the primary concern of the first-in officer.


On arrival at the scene, the company should use tools such as binoculars and the North American Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) to identify the product or products involved. Also, the company should request the assistance of anyone responsible for the product in obtaining material safety data sheets (MSDSs), shipping papers, or other information that will assist in determining the severity of the incident. The first-responding fire company should attempt to gather knowledgeable people and keep them available for the haz-mat response team. The HMRT would likely interview these people to determine the cause of the leak or spill and what the hazards of the product are. These actions fall under the “Identify” stage of the incident management process but must be accomplished before the isolation zone can be more clearly defined.

Once container shape and size, placards, labels, or shipping documents have generally identified the product, the initial hot zone can be modified as needed. This area should be large enough to ensure that all companies upwind and downwind are in a safe atmosphere and also allow for any product movement as a result of environmental conditions or even a catastrophic failure of the product’s container. The ERG provides a good deal of help in establishing initial isolation zones and should be consulted early. Actions such as setting hot zones are important defensive operations and require companies to trade space for the safety of responders until the HMRT arrives.


The process of notifications should begin at the same time that the initial isolation and the identification of the product are occurring. It is imperative that the company officer request the HMRT as soon as there is reasonable suspicion that you are dealing with a known or potential haz-mat release. You then can continue to relay information as you develop it to the team while they are en route. In addition to the HMRT, the fire alarm office will have to be notified of the resources needed (e.g., police for isolation or evacuation, additional alarms if the incident involves serious fire or the threat of a fire, and EMS resources to treat any injuries). In the notification process, having a phone line available to relay information is a very helpful tool. The process of reading and spelling out the name of a product over the radio is time-consuming, preventing other radio traffic from getting out; it is prone to error because of traffic being stepped on by other units; it may reveal to the general population, using scanners, more information than you would be ready to release. In this age of inexpensive cell phones with walkie-talkie features, the addition of a phone capability will potentially save many headaches and create an environment where operational security can be more easily maintained.

Cell phones won’t prevent a dedicated or devious individual from obtaining information about your operation. However, they can prevent the general population and the media from obtaining information you are not prepared to release.


The first step in mitigation is establishing emergency decontamination. In the beginning of an incident, emergency decontamination can be established using a 13/4-inch hoseline with a fog nozzle and some means of containing runoff. The containment system can be as simple as flushing contamination off an individual over a grassy area that can later be excavated by a cleanup contractor if needed. Of course, this system of emergency decontamination is the bare minimum that should be established. It is not sufficient for teams conducting reconnaissance or entry; it is established to handle a true emergency only. Members assigned to operate the emergency decontamination sector should be in full turnout gear, with SCBA and hoods in place. As soon as is practical, a more formal emergency decontamination system should be implemented with a true containment system and staffed by responders in chemical protective clothing.

Beyond establishing emergency decontamination, the company officer must use SOGs and assess available resources to determine if any other mitigation steps can be accomplished. For example, shutting down a valve remote from a leak is a mitigation step that can be accomplished from a defensive posture, but only if the company officer has such discretion to act according to the department SOGs and after consultation with knowledgeable facility representatives who can determine if such action will increase the overall problem by impacting other processes.


Termination is the final step in the five-step IMS. The first-in companies will not engage in terminating an incident if they have called for a HMRT or extra alarm companies. The responsibility for terminating the incident will fall on the incident commander. The first-due company, however, can obtain information such as names, addresses, and phone numbers of responsible parties, shippers, and any witnesses that can be handed over to the incident commander to help terminate the incident. After the incident is handed over to a remediation contractor, the first-responding companies should participate in the post-incident debriefing and later critiques.

The engine and truck companies are the backbone of the fire service and must be prepared to respond to haz-mat incidents. Commonsense, as well as local and federal laws, tell us that these first responders, along with local law enforcement in many cases, will be responsible for recognizing that a hazardous condition exists and starting the process of protecting the population and environment from the effects of the hazard. They must be trained to meet the standards of OSHA 1910.120 and have the appropriate equipment and personnel to bring a haz-mat incident under control by isolating the scene, identifying the product, and notifying the appropriate resources needed to mitigate the incident. The specific circumstances of isolating and identifying materials described in this article should not be considered the only options; there are many ways of accomplishing these tasks, and companies will become proficient in them only through training. It is imperative that fire companies are trained to understand the scope of the actions they can be expected to handle and given the equipment to accomplish those tasks. Proper training, equipment, and personnel are needed to operate safely and effectively. n

CHRISTOPHER BRENNAN is a field staff member with the Illinois Fire Service Institute and a firefighter in DuPage County.

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