Handling Hazardous Materials
The Editor’s Opinion Page
One of the workshops that we took in at the recent IAFC Conference in Seattle was given over to the handling of hazardous materials. Obviously, such materials when involved in a fire present a highly ticklish job for the fire fighter. And they can be rough going even when fire is not the major problem, as in some train wrecks or highway collisions.
One of the speakers at the workshop pointed out that the problems of the volunteer fire chief in incidents involving hazardous materials can be worse than that of the big city chief. His reasoning was that the volunteer chief frequently lacks a large and readily available supply of water. This water is needed to suppress fire or to dilute poisonous gases and other dangerous substances to the point where they are rendered harmless.
He emphasized also that there are occasions when it is too dangerous for fire fighters to fight a fire involving hazardous materials. And he recommended that when this occasion arises, the area be evacuated up to a distance of one half mile of all persons, including fire fighters.
Large volumes of water are also needed in incidents involving the escape of poisonous gases, which can be found in train and highway accidents. The distance traveled by a cloud of toxic gases depends on wind and weather conditions. But it might spread for 10 or more miles, particularly downwind. Hose streams directed into some vapor clouds can dilute and disperse them to a point where they are no longer dangerous. Streams can also be used to divert a gas cloud from an exposure.
This same technique can be used on a cloud of flammable gas. But it must be remembered that the flammable gas is a much greater hazard to the fire fighter, whose mask and turnout gear offer no protection to a ball of flame.
However, all the techniques available are of no use unless the chief knows what’s burning or leaking. For this reason the chief should have a basic knowledge of the materials that are stored in his town or may pass through on trains or trailers. If he has, he will know when to use water and when not to. (With certain materials, the use of water can add tremendously to the fire problem.) He will also know when to evacuate and when to stand fast.
One way to acquire this knowledge is to have a Chem-Card on hand at all incidents and another is to dip into a chemical dictionary once in a while. A course in chemistry wouldn’t hurt either.
Just remember that any serious incidents involving hazardous materials will wind up in the lap of the local fire chief. Other agencies are just not equipped materially or temperamentally to handle them.