EVERY DAY throughout the world, hazardous materials are transported by commercial air carriers. For any firelighter who might have to respond to an emergency involving such a carrier, this is a primary concern.

A high-impact crash or breakup of a commercial aircraft could scatter cargo across miles, destroying most of what is being carried and making identification of that cargo extremely difficult. So what do we look for and how much danger is there? Let’s take a brief look at haz mats in commercial air transport.

Haz-mat transport by air is perfectly legitimate provided that the risk has been reduced to an “acceptable” level as determined and regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation through the Federal Aviation Administration, the International Civil Aviation Organization. and the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Risk reduction is accomplished by stringent packaging requirements, limiting the amount of haz mats, and requiring shippers to provide certain information on a shipper’s declaration. Most air carriers use regulations published by IATA because the organization is accepted by both domestic and international groups.


All packages containing haz mats to be shipped by air must meet four marking requirements:

  1. The proper shipping name of the material must be written on the package.
  2. The package must include the proper United Nations (UN) identification number or proper ID number. The ID number is a temporary identification number in the 8000 series for materials that have no assigned UN number. The prefix UN or ID must appear in conjunction with the number.
  3. All packages must display the proper hazard class label. There are eight hazard classes; however, IATA recognizes a ninth class of haz mats (known in the United States as “Other Regulated Materials,” or ORM) for which there is no label. Miscellaneous items fall into this class. These are materials that have anesthetic, noxious, or other similar properties that may be annoying to passengers but not necessarily dangerous. Examples of materials that fall into this class are cosmetics, some medicines, and dry ice.
  4. The package must display the name of the shipper and co-signee.

Haz mats that pose more than one hazard must be labeled for both the primary and subsidiary hazards. The label for the primary hazard will be displayed on the left. The subsidiary hazard class label will not indicate a UN hazard class number. LATA has also created a category for Dangerous Goods in Excepted Quantities for those materials that, when packed in minimum quantities, may travel under less stringent guidelines. These materials are generally packaged in less than one liter in volume or less than one kilogram in weight.


The most accurate means of determining the types and amounts of haz mats that may be present on board any aircraft is by examining the shipping papers carried on board: Airbill (air waybill); Shipper’s Declaration of Dangerous Goods; and Notice to Pilot in Command. The information contained in these documents will include the proper shipping name, UN hazard class number, and UN identification number. They will also show the amount of material being carried, where the material was shipped from, and its destination. Copies of these documents will be affixed to the packages containing the materials. Another copy is usually kept in the cockpit area, depending on the carrier. Additional copies may be found at the departing station of the aircraft. These papers are identified by a border of red diagonal hatchings or by bold red’ printing.

Of course, conditions at the incident scene may make it impossible to examine cockpit documents or cargo packages, if indeed they haven’t already been destroyed. Another method of documenting cargo is by the use of computer. Some air freight companies have computer networks that stations use to notify company headquarters and destinations of freight being carried on a particular flight.



Haz mats may be transported by passenger-carrying aircraft under certain restrictions. The amount that may be carried by a passenger aircraft in a compartment that is inaccessible in flight is 25 kg (55 lbs.) or 25 litres. Most commercial passenger aircraft have two inaccessible cargo compartments, but larger aircraft such as DC-10s have three. Exceptions to this rule are nonflammable gases (75 kg), radioactive material, and dry ice (200 kg). Explosives are prohibited from transport by passenger aircraft with the exception of those falling under l!N hazard class 1.4. Examples of explosives that fall into this category are small-arms ammunition, aerial flares, and common fireworks. A new label is in use for this commodity.


Larger quantities of haz mats offered for air transportation are generally carried by companies specializing in air freight. These companies most often use aircraft that were once used as passenger carriers. Though retired by those airlines, they are nevertheless still reliable; they may be turboprop aircraft such as the YS-11 or large jets such as the 727 or even the DC-10.

Cargo aboard these aircraft is carried in containers that can be easily rolled on and off. Some companies use closed containers, while others use open bintype containers. Haz mats are segregated from other cargo, with the exception of low-level radioactive materials. These will be placed in separate containers that display a Dangerous Goods identification tag. This tag will not specify the types of materials in the container, but will identify the various UN hazard classes stored in it.

Some air freight companies specially mark their haz-mat containers with red striping or some other identification mark. Some may also have halon fire extinguishing systems.

Most air freight carriers fly at night, so you are most likely to encounter an incident during the hours of darkness. Also, the carriage of haz mats—by both airlines and air freight companies—is a matter of individual company policy. Some airlines and air freight companies have liberal haz-mat policies, while others will not transport them at all.


  1. The best way to handle an incident after it occurs is to be prepared before it occurs through preincident planning. This is just a sampling of the steps to take in establishing effective preplans:
    1. The types of aircraft, both passenger and freight, that fly in your jurisdiction should be made readily available.
    2. Know who the air carriers are that serve your area. Find out their policies on haz mats and where they are normally carried, if at all.
    3. Find out where to get emergency information on cargo being carried from individual companies.
    4. Learn how haz mats are stowed in aircraft serving your area.
  2. If an accident involving a large commercial aircraft occurs in your jurisdiction, a haz-mat officer should be assigned to determine the presence of dangerous goods. In some jurisdictions, a haz-mat response team may be part of the response assignment to aircraft accidents.
  3. Aircraft, by construction, are themselves extra-large, hazardous-materials carriers. Some large commercial aircraft carry in excess of 50,000 gallons of Jet-A fuel, along with lubricating oils, hydraulic fluids, and pressurized oxygen systems. The aircraft alone is a big hazard. Don’t overlook the obvious!

The most important priority during an incident involving an aircraft is life safety. Neither this priority nor any other should be sacrificed in a mad dash to find haz mats that may either have been destroyed or were not present to begin with. However, remember that hazardous materials may be present. Knowing what to look for may protect civilians, your fellow responders, and you.

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