Listen to the Canaries: Safety on Your Next Hazmat Call

By Frank Vumbaca

In the fire service, we have become accustomed to the more mundane hazmat call, whether it is for carbon monoxide from a malfunctioning furnace or a fluids spill from a leaking gas tank. This article will focus on one out-of-the-ordinary call that may be more prevalent in your older communities than you think.

The initial call came in at 1221 hours. The store clerk at a liquor store had a burning sensation in his eyes. It appeared to be a normal medical till the dispatch center starting asking more questions. The initial patient was met by another store occupant who had similar symptoms, which lessened as they exited the store. Moreover, the symptoms got worse the closer they were to the main office/accounting area.

At this point, this medical transport became a full-on hazmat response. The first-arriving engine company arrived on scene and initiated command. Other units started to question the patients further, emergency medical services (EMS) units started treating the patients, and hazmat technicians started to get ready for entry.

The first order of business was to figure out the source of the trouble. The hazmat unit started to check the usual suspect: The most likely cause of the symptoms. Remember, this is a liquor store with very limited sources. The layout of the business included two refrigerator cases, a small bathroom, an office, and the main retail area. Units metered all areas getting no abnormal readings. The initial sweep of the business only revealed a small amount of cleaning supplies in the bathroom opposite where the occupants started to feel the symptoms. Also, none of the chemicals had been used recently, and the containers where intact.

 

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Further questioning of the store owner revealed that the refrigerator units had been serviced the day prior, and the units were frozen up. This seemed to be the likely cause, and in fact there was a positive reading on a refrigerant meter after learning this. The building was ventilated, a service tech was called out to the scene to repair the unit, and all seemed be solved…right?

The initial patient who refused transport to the hospital re-entered the building, but he had the same symptoms again. The hazmat techs where called in again to check the refrigerator cases, again resulting in positive hits. It turns out that the reading ended up being false positives because of the air flow from the fan units. It seemed like we were back to where we started.

Listen to your victims, listen to the “canaries.” Like these canaries in the mine shaft, these people will, in most cases, give all the clues you need to figure out what is going on.

So, we started back to the initial area of symptoms: the office. Looking around, there was nothing out of the ordinary—some desks, a television, a safe, and some book shelves. The safe was left open, so we asked why it was open. The response was that the clerks where getting ready to open the store and set up the cash register. The incident commander started doing research on the safe and its contents. The content was nothing out of the ordinary, but the safe was built in the early 1900s. With a lot of research, it was discovered that older safes had anti-burglary features not offered in modern safes and for good reason.

With more questioning, we discovered that at closing the night before, the clerk had slammed the door shut. Inside the door wall was a chemical called Chloropicrin. The chemical is like an early version of tear gas. The idea was that if someone was going to rob the safe, the glass vial would break, stopping them from getting the contents. The slamming of the door broke the almost 100-year-old vial, creating the symptoms.

The moral of this story is that not every call is cut and dry. Look at your victims/canaries and go where they tell you to go, not the usual suspects. I can guarantee that these oddities are in everyone’s districts in some form or another, and it’s just a matter of time till you get called to one. Take the blinders off and we can all go home safe.

 

Frank Vumbaca has been a firefighter/hazmat technician for six years at the University of Connecticut Fire Department. He is also a member of the Connecticut Eastern Region Response Integrated Team and a hazmat technician for the CT-TF1 US&R team. Prior to being in the fire service Vumbaca obtained his degree in molecular and cell biology.

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