Fire Department/Haz-Mat Team Interface

By: Ronald E. Kanterman

Whether you’re a municipal or an industrial fire department and you’re responding to a hazardous-materials incident, you need to properly and safely interface with the hazardous-materials response team (HMRT). It is essential that you have some type of plan for joint operations. You must consider many factors when responding to a haz-mat incident:

  • Responding: This is a different response than to a structure fire. There are many “unknowns” at a haz-mat job. Now more than ever are we facing the world of the unknown. There are hundreds of thousands of chemicals, each with their own personality, including weapons of mass destruction. Hitting a hydrant and stretching in doesn’t cut it here. Slow down, find out what you have, and proceed with an informed plan and a level head
  • Preplans: Study the nine DOT classes of materials; use your DOT response manual and other resources. Municipal fire departments should visit local fixed facilities and preplan with industrial response teams. Industrial fire departments or brigades should interact with their on-site haz-mat team and their municipal response partners. It’s too late to preplan when you pull up to a leaking tank of a flammable liquid, fuming acid, or worse.
  • The Environment: The fire service, in particular industrial emergency response services, has taken on the responsibility of protecting the environment. One environmental case that stays in my mind is the Sherwin-Williams paint factory fire in 1987 in Dayton, Ohio. The chief let the fire burn because the contaminated runoff would have contaminated drinking wells for a large area around the scene of the fire. Sometimes the plan is to do nothing with the fire in the interest of the environment.
  • Drills and Training: An emergency plan is only good if it’s functional. How do you test functionality? Drills! You’ve got to test the plan to see if it really works.
What can you be doing with and for the haz-mat team? Since you’ll probably be first due and waiting for the haz-mat team to show up, implement the incident command system (ICS). OSHA 1910.120 (q) specifically states that “response to hazardous materials incidents shall be coordinated and mitigated using the Incident Command System.” The fire department or brigade will be operating under the “operations” section of the ICS. Don’t forget to respond uphill and upwind, and when in doubt, do two things on arrival: isolate (the area) and deny (entry).

Once the IC has conferred with the operations branch chief and haz-mat branch chief, the fire department may take on various support roles. One such support activity may be stretching a precautionary hoseline or foam line for a flammable liquid spill. Multiple dry chemical units may be staged. In a fixed facility, 100-lb. or 150-lb. wheeled dry chemical units can be stage and/or used for quick knockdown in the event of a flash.

Because haz-mat jobs can be long and tedious, rotate your firefighters. The decontamination branch may need assistance as well. The fire department members may be feeding decon showers or using fog lines to wash down haz-mat team members. Fire department members may need to be dressed possibly in level B splash protection and SCBA so as not to contaminate their turnout gear. Suppressing vapors with water fog, foam, or special haz-mat foams may be necessary to prevent a flash or to quell fumes or a vapor cloud from reaching farther then the immediate area. Get your information first.

Things to consider:

  1. The municipal department and the haz-mat response team must plan joint responses and practice together.
  2. The municipal department must plan and drill with industrial response teams.
  3. The municipal department must preplan fixed facilities.
  4. Renew response protocols and preplans and perform drills regularly.
  5. Use the ICS every time you respond.

Ron Kanterman is chief of emergency services for Merck & Co. in Rahway, New Jersey, and a volunteer on call member of the Borough of North Plainfield (NJ) Fire Rescue Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and master’s degrees in fire protection management and environmental science and is an adjunct professor of fire science at Middlesex County College. He is a member of the FDIC staff and advisory board and of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board.

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