Unless a hazardous material response team has the proper equipment, education, and training, it’s useless in an incident, just as a three-legged stool is useless if one of its members is omitted.

Last month, we discussed the value of proper education and training in dealing with hazardous material emergencies. Here are a few examples of the types of equipment that will be helpful in successfully concluding a hazardous materials incident:


Encapsulating suits

This is the most important item of personal protection for team members and, consequently, the most care should be given to the selection. The most sensible method of selection is to check the lists of chemicals for which each suit material offers the greatest protection. Generally, each polymeric material will offer protection from 60% to 80% of the chemicals in existence, but no material will offer protection from every chemical. The job of selecting the proper suits will often be aided by determining the types of chemicals with which the response team will most likely come into contact. This suit will become the primary protection suit, and a second suit will have to be selected on the basis that it will protect against all the other types of chemicals against which the primary suit will fail. There will be some overlapping of protection since there are some hazard classes against which all suits offer protection.

An absolute minimum number of suits for a response team is three of each type. A minimum of two members in protective suits should work each incident, with a third member as backup, available to lend a hand if one member is overcome. Obviously, if three suits is a minimum, four is better, and, if the budget allows, as many as six of each type would be best (the team may want at least four members assigned to an incident, with teams of two relieving each other at 20-minute intervals with two members in reserve).

The question of whether to provide a thin suit to fit over the encapsulating suit will be up to the person in charge of specifications. Throwaway chemical suits also have a place in handling certain materials, and these should be considered in addition to total encapsulating suits.

Masks, boots, and gloves

Obviously, these items must be selected on the same basis as the encapsulating suits. That is, what materials are likely to contact these items? In some instances, these items may come as part of a package with the total encapsulating suit, and, in other cases, they may have to be purchased separately. The danger here is that the wrong mask, gloves, or boots may be worn with a chemical suit in a particular incident; and while the suit may be impervious to the chemical, one of the other items may not. In this case, the protection offered to the team member is only as good as the weakest part of his gear. If the mask, gloves, or boots fail, the team member will be as vulnerable as if he had no protection at all.

It also must be obvious that all protective gear should be used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Any deviation from these specifications may cause a failure of the suit or accessories.


This may range from a small chalkboard and colored chalk to a sophisticated radio system with microphones built into the SCBA. Whatever method is used, communications might be the most important function at an incident.

Remember, when someone is dressed in a total encapsulating suit, his hearing is impaired, and it is almost impossible for two members in chemical suits to communicate with one another. One answer, of course, is radio communications, and a clumsier approach is writing on paper or a chalkboard (ever try to hold a pencil or piece of chalk while wearing big, stiff gloves?). At the very least, all team members should be trained in some sort of sign language to be able to communicate the most basic of messages, particularly for help. And don’t forget the important task of a team member in the chemical suit getting “close in” to a leaking container and then trying to tell others back at the command post what the numbers or words are on the placard, label, or container.

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All tools should be of the nonsparking variety for obvious reasons. Trying to save money here could prove disastrous.

The term “tool” is all-inclusive. Any object that might be used at the scene of an incident to perform any task is a tool. Wherever possible, all metal objects used by a team member should be non-sparking. The actual list of needed tools will contain every hand tool usually used by any firefighter including power tools. If power tools are used at an incident, do not forget that if they are not explosion proof (motors and switches isolated from the atmosphere), their activation could cause an explosion.


Many times, the first act of a team member at the incident scene (after material identification) will be to stop the spread of the hazardous material or the product of a reaction. All three forms of matter (solid, liquid, and gas) must be considered in the containment process.

Gases/vapors may be the hazardous material itself or a material produced by a reaction of the hazardous material and whatever the hazardous material came into contact with.

If the gas or vapor is leaking from a container, containment may be affected by turning a valve or some other control, which may require a special tool. Containment may also be affected by driving a wooden or plastic plug, applying an adhesive under force, or pressing another material or object against the hole or puncture (such as air bags or pieces of polymeric fabric). Straps and other restraining devices should be part of this equipment.

Liquids could be a bigger problem than gases, since many liquids, once freed of their container, will produce dangerous vapors immediately or when contacting other materials. If the liquid is in a container and is producing hazardous vapors or gases, the procedures given above for containing a leaking gas should be followed.

Available resources

There are many resources available to emergency personnel who want to reach a state of proper preparedness.

At the top of the list are local colleges and universities that offer programs in fire science or fire protection technology. Many states have state fire academies, or similar educational programs, and will offer hazardous material training as a part of their curriculum. Without detracting from any such programs, it can be stated unequivocally that the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, has the premier hazardous materials program in existence today.

On a local basis, there are several sources of help. Chemical companies are vitally interested in preventing hazardous material incidents, whether with their products or others. Their chemists will be of great help in providing information. Local hospitals are a good resource, and local colleges and universities have chemists and other technical personnel who can help with questions concerning specific materials.

Suppliers of safety equipment are always ready to answer questions and make suggestions as to the proper equipment in certain circumstances. They will also train users of their products in the proper use and care of those products.

Transportation companies are usually very helpful in volunteering to demonstrate their equipment, including all modes of transportation.

If the liquid is leaking from the container and flowing, attempts should be made to stop the flow using the same procedures as for a gas or vapor. If these attempts to stop the leak fail, portable tanks (usually a folding framework of metal into which very large sheets of plastic can be placed) can be used to catch the leaking liquid. If the tank cannot hold all the leaking liquid, a series of tanks, drums, or other containers may be set up (be sure metal containers won’t react with the liquid) and the liquid may be pumped from the portable tank to succeeding containers.

Further containment procedures, if the leak cannot be stopped, should include digging a hole, diking (the materials used to contain the liquid should not contribute to the problem), trenching, and adsorbing.

If the leaking container is small enough, it may be overpacked (placed inside a larger container). This would be a rare procedure for leaking gases unless the overpack is a pressurized container.

If the liquid is vaporizing or threatening to vaporize, tarps or sheets of plastic could be used to cover it. If the liquid is of a particular hazard class, such as corrosives, neutralization by adding a chemical is a possible alternative.

Solids are the easiest to contain, as many of them can simply be shoveled up into a new container. Protecting spilled solids against water and other chemicals can be accomplished by covering them with tarps or plastic sheeting. This may also be necessary to protect solids that exist as fine powders from the wind. Wind-carried dusts that are hazardous are just as dangerous as gases or vapors. Trenching may be required to lead flowing water or other liquids away from the spilled solids.


There are several very specialized pieces of equipment that will be useful to the response team. One is the chlorine kit, which comes in three sizes, to handle the common sizes of chlorine containers. Generalized spill containers and/or neutralization kits are sold for laboratories and small businesses.

Kits are also available containing small, spark-proof hand tools, and some various sizes of plugs and patches.

Having small earth-moving equipment, such as a small bulldozer or backhoe would prove invaluable at some incidents. A snowblower might come in handy to throw solid neutralizing chemicals onto a spill from a distance. Stainless steel pumps would be necessary to handle some liquid leaks, being sure, of course, that the fittings are also protected.

Various types of gas and vapor detection equipment are needed, and there are many analytical devices available.

The response vehicle could be equipped with various power takeoffs, electrical generators, and a weather station. A microcomputer complete with programs and hazardous materials data sheets onboard the vehicle would save a lot of research time. A complete (as possible) library of reference books on hazardous materials is absolutely necessary. Additional equipment would include winches, ropes, searchlights, first aid equipment, fire extinguishers, etc. The vehicle equipped with radio and telephone communication capabilities would operate as a command post. Any electrical equipment carried would be explosion proof.

Don’t forget a good pair of running shoes (for transportation out of the danger area) and a powerful pair of binoculars (for viewing the danger area from a distance— where you should have been in the first place).

Okay, now you have a rough idea of what “proper preparation” is for a hazardous materials response team. But what if your team doesn’t meet this definition, or you don’t yet have a team? And suppose that it is your responsibility to handle a hazardous materials incident. What do you do? What can you do?


Remember the premise under which we have been operating—no one is properly prepared to handle hazardous material incidents. Secondly, proper preparation is defined by being formally educated, formally trained, and fully equipped. If the normal condition of most fire departments fits the description of not being properly prepared, what can be done until proper preparation is a reality? Here are some suggestions to be used only as a stopgap procedure until proper preparation of the response team is possible. Most of the suggestions can be achieved within the fire department, using instructors and textbooks.

It must be understood that under no circumstances are the following suggestions to be adopted as permanent policy. They are to be used while personnel are progressing towards proper preparedness. The recommendations carry a certain danger in that they are of a general nature. The safe handling of specific hazardous materials requires specific procedures. In other words, what might be recommended for a general hazard class might cause a worsening of the problem with a specific chemical.

With this warning in mind, let us proceed to the general recommendations.

Learn to detect the presence of a hazardous material

Common sense will point out probably 99% of the possible locations of hazardous materials with which you may become involved:

  • Know where hazardous materials are stored. Inspection programs will enable you to make and maintain lists of hazardous materials and their locations in your district.
  • This location information will indicate modes of transportation used to deliver the material where it will be stored or used. A great deal of pre-planning can be done by knowing these first two situations.
  • Get an idea of the transportation experience through the district as well as into the district. Become aware of the shape of containers and other indicators of hazardous material transport. An awareness of these containers will provide clues as to their contents.
  • Become aware of messages communicated on the outside of the vehicle or container. Look for placards and/or labels, markings, or colors in a distinctive fashion, or printing that would indicate a vague warning (CHEMTREC’s number, “chemical” in the company’s name, etc.).

At an incident, there will be a number of common sense indicators to alert you to the possibility of the involvement of a hazardous material: odor in the air; fumes or vapors present; hissing, popping, or other noises coming from the container; incapacitated or prone persons or animals in the area; the person in charge running or at a remote distance.

Learn to identify hazardous materials

Again, common sense will provide most of the steps necessary to identify hazardous materials on an emergency basis until formal education can be acquired.

  • Learn to use placarding or labeling to identify the hazard class to which the particular hazardous material belongs.
  • Learn to read shipping papers or MSDS (material safety data sheets). Prepared correctly, they offer the most specific identification possible.
  • The shape of the container may be a specific identifier of the material and may indicate the hazard class. Learn the types of con-
  • tainers used to transport or store hazardous materials. Treat every container as one that holds a dangerous material until proved otherwise.
  • Learn to use reference books that will identify the possible methods of safe handling of dangerous materials. Be careful about using books that group large amounts of chemicals together and offer one procedure to cover all of them. These references are designed to be “first aid” methods of handling incidents. Don’t use a reference book just because it is simple to use and offers simple solutions.
  • Learn some chemical terms that will aid in an emergency until gaining a formal education in the chemistry of hazardous materials.

Also, learn to distinguish between a brand name and a chemical name. Following is a list of chemical terms that will indicate the probability of the presence of a dangerous material:

  • Any material with “acid” as part of the name (not all substances with acid in the name are corrosive; some of the other hazards are worse than corrosives).

Any material having as part of its name: arsenic or arsenous; mercury, mercuric, or mercurous; cyanide, cyanite, cyanate, or -cyan-; phosphorus or phosphoric; chromic.

  • Plutonium or uranium or any derivation of these two names.
  • Any material with -nitroas part of the name.
  • Any chemical name ending in -ate or -ite.
  • Any material containing -oxy-, -peroxy-, -per-, or peroxide.
  • Any powdered metal.
  • Any designation of “explosive,” “blasting agent,” or “N.C.N.”
  • Any obvious organic chemical name (methyl, ethyl, propyl, phenyl, alcohol, amine, ketone, aldehyde, ether, ester, nitrile, chloro-, fluoro-, bromo-, iso-, -ane, -ene, -yne, -yl, -one, -ol, -al, -ine, etc.).
  • Fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine.
  • If a material name includes hydride, carbide, phosphide, nitride.
  • Any special names such as oleum, trichlor, lime, lye, caustic, etc.

Learn what to do at the scene of an incident

There are no general procedures that can be used at a hazardous materials incident that are totally correct. In many cases, specific procedures are required for different materials, even if they are members of the same hazard class. So, the use of common sense is an emergency procedure until the team can become properly prepared. Sometimes, though, pride and other problems may prevent common sense from being utilized, situation is out of control, so the obvious first consideration is the protection of life. Evacuation and withdrawal should always be a consideration, especially if there is a lot of doubt and uncertainty as to

  • Learn when to evacuate and/ or withdraw. It may not be obvious to anyone at the incident that the the identity of the hazards.
  • Learn when to call for help. No matter how prepared first re-
  • sponders are, help is always needed from someone in a hazardous materials incident. The help may be from CHEMTREC, the shipper, the manufacturer, the receiver of the materials, or from some other expert. The help may be from a neighboring department or from an experienced hazardous materials response team. The point is, ask for help.
  • Learn the system of general procedures for handling various

Reference texts

Every fire department should have at least the books listed here, and there are others that would supplement a basic library in hazardous materials.

Reference books helpful to hazardous material response teams include (but are not limited to):

Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials, N. Irving Sax Fire Protection Guide on Hazardous Materials, National Fire Protection Association

Emergency Handling of Hazardous Materials in Surface Transportation, Bureau of Explosives, Association of American Railroads

Hazardous Materials Handbook, James H. Meidl

Condensed Chemical Dictionary, Gessner G. Hawley Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49, U.S. General Printing Office C.H.R.I.S. Manual, U.S. Coast Guard

1984 Emergency Response Guidebook, U.S. Department of Transportation

Firefighter’s Handbook of Hazardous Materials, Charles Baker Redbook on Transportation of Hazardous Materials, Lawrence Bierlein

Textbooks on Hazardous Materials include:

Fire Officer’s Guide to Dangerous Chemicals, Charles W. Bahme Hazardous Materials, Warren E.

Isman and Gene P. Carlson Flammable Hazardous Materials, James H. Meidl

Explosive and Toxic Hazardous Materials, James H. Meidl Chemistry of Hazardous Materials, Eugene Meyer

Hazardous Materials, Leroy Schieler and Denis Pauze

  • hazard classes. Most departments have a good working knowledge of how to handle flammable liquids, gases, and solids. Work should be done to familiarize personnel with the general procedures on how to handle corrosives, oxidizers, unstable materials, compressed gases, cryogenics, toxic and/or radioactive materials, explosives, and airand water-reactive materials.

There are no identical, safe procedures to handle all the members of any particular hazard class. What is effective on handling one unstable material may cause another to react violently. The safest procedures are those that have been proven effective on individual chemicals. However, since the discussion here is around emergency procedures for unprepared first responders, unsatisfactory “first aid” procedures may be all that are available. The danger here is that first responders will use these general procedures and cause more damage than if they did not get involved. The best procedure is to become properly prepared. For those who don’t, injury and death are likely results.

Education, training, and equipment must ail come into play in order to effect a properly prepared response team.

This information and the information presented in Part 1 of this article on how to handle a hazardous materials incident before a response team is fully and properly prepared (FIRE ENGINEERING, February 1985) is offered as a guide only. There is no substitute for proper preparation. Firefighters are injured and killed all too frequently in hazardous materials incidents, and many, if not all of these injuries and deaths may be prevented by being fully and properly educated, fully and properly trained, and fully and properly equipped.

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