With the growing use and misuse of hazardous materials, nearly any fire can be a potential chemical disaster. Keeping abreast of hazardous materials and knowing how to deal with them is a must for all fire fighters.

No effort should be spared for improvements to and the establishment of specialized, well-trained hazmat units. Serious injuries, fatalities, contamination and/or destruction of entire communities are the alternatives to prompt and proper action in a hazmat situation.

The importance of hazmat training cannot be stressed enough, says Vincent j. Brigante, vice president in charge of hazardous materials operations for New England Pollution Control (NEPCCO).

NEPCCO, a company founded in 1971 by President Thomas Brigante, Sr., handled the 27-day chemical cleanup at Berncolors-Poughkeepsie (N Y.) Dye Works in lanuary 1982 (Fire Engineering, July 1982), and the cleanup of an 18-story office building in Binghamton, N.Y., which was completely contaminated by PCBs as a result of a minor electrical fire in February 1981.

According to V.J. Brigante, a good hazmat disaster plan must include, in addition to a well-trained and well-informed unit, basic equipment consisting of acid suits, aluminized reflecting suits (for high heat situations) and proper breathing apparatus. Fully encapsulated suits also are required for those times when breathing apparatus is not enough, as in a fire involving vinyl chloride, which can be absorbed through the skin. Recalling the Berncolors Dye Works incident, Brigante cautioned that in a hazmat situation, conventional turnout gear may have materials which can be a potential time bomb.

Knowing the locations and equipment facilities of poison centers and trauma units should also be part of a fire department’s hazmat plan, as should preventive measures, which include an industrial inspection program (Fire Engineering, September 1982), educating communities as to the dangers of hazmats, and maintaining a continuing safety and medical exam program for exposed personnel. Initial checkups should be followed up with X rays, blood tests and anything else that might be needed. “If someone at an incident site becomes nauseous, he should be sent immediately for an exam,” warns Brigante.


“There are numerous factors to consider when responding to an emergency— weather conditions, population, nearby industries and what materials they use,” says Brigante. “A common mistake many fire departments make after a chemical spill incident is flushing the pavement. Not only can this spread the contamination and endanger groundwater, but if a nearby industry is using materials that are reactive with the spilled chemicals, you could blow up the whole town.”

The cost of a specialized, well-trained hazmat unit is expensive, Brigante noted, particularly for smaller departments. Certain protective suits cost $3000 a piece. One solution suggested by Brigante to minimize costs is to establish cooperative countywide units made up of personnel from separate departments. In this way, equipment and training costs are shared, and individuals receiving hazmat training can in turn pass on what they learn to their own departments.

NEPCCO can provide some of this training free of charge to fire departments through its transportation skills program. This course deals with regulations regarding transport and handling of hazmats, what to do at the accident or fire scene and the protective clothing required.

NEPCCO also works with fire departments on their in-house training, and will send guest speakers and lecturers to departments on request. Recently, NEPCCO participated in a drill at the Fairfield County, Conn., Fire Training Center in which a’ gasoline tanker fire was simulated, and conducted an emergency chemical response and environmental techniques seminar for the Batavia, N.Y., Fire and State Police Departments.

One course highly recommended by Brigante is the Hazardous Material Control Course given at Texas A&M University. The five-day course is offered 10 to 12 times each year and is designed to provide students with the basic knowledge needed to respond to or assist in responding to hazardous material incidents. Concepts are covered in classroom sessions and then applied in hands-on exercises and demonstrations under realistic conditions.

“The Texas school is excellent,” says Brigante, “but it’s expensive.” If you can afford it, at least one or two people from the unit should take it. An alternative is the Environmental Protection Agency. They have excellent courses too that are free, but they’re tough to get into. It’s worth the effort though. You can write to the EPA for applications.

The EPA also offers personnel as guest speakers for in-house department training.

In addition to training, Brigante cited the 1980 Emergency Response Guidebook put out by the Department of Transportation (DOT P 5800.2) as another necessity for the fire service. “This should be your Bible.” The book is a comprehensive listing of chemicals telling how chemicals will react under certain conditions, what will cause certain chemicals to explode or burn, safety procedures to be taken, protective clothing needed, what to do if a fire starts, how to suppress the fire and first-aid procedures. The guidebook is a free publication, and can be ordered by calling (202)426-2301.

Another book Brigante recommends, particularly for rural departments that have a high incident rate of barn fires, is the Pesticides Catalogue put out by Chemical Services Inc. of West Chester, Pa. Brigante also suggests First Aid Manual for Chemical Accidents by Marc J. LeFevre; Dangerous Properties of Hazardous Materials by Irving Sax; Managing Hazardous Substances Accidents by Al J. Smith, Jr.; Explosives by Rudolf Meyer; and Highly Hazardous Materials Spills and Emergency Planning by ). E. Zajic and W. A. Himmelman.

The biggest obstacle facing hazmat programs is, of course, cost. “In today’s economy when municipalities are looking for new ways to cut budgets, it’s pretty hard to get money for specialized hazmat training, and even more so for specialized equipment.” Brigante recommends soliciting donations from local Industry through the Chamber of Commerce. “Start by working out a cooperative arrangement with companies that use hazmats, see if they are willing to donate time or money.”

Brigante sees the role of the fire department as more important than ever, not only in dealing with hazmats, but in educating the people of their communities to the reality of the dangers. “With what’s being used in industry and transported by rail and highway today,” said Brigante, “the likelihood of a hazmat incident occurring in any given community is good. Fire departments have to be ready to face this possibility.”

No posts to display