Most of us have heard of the Hippocratic oath taken by physicians when they first begin to practice medicine. Hippocrates, a 4th century B.C. Greek physician, is sometimes referred to as the father of modern medicine and is the author of a classical medical text that still has relevance more than 2,300 years after his death. Of lesser renown is a corollary to the Hippocratic oath, which we can apply to hazardous-materials emergency responders: “First, do no harm.”

Unfortunately, in some hazardousmaterials emergency responses this principle is ignored. We become wrapped up in analyzing the incident and considering all of the possible chemical combinations and by-products of reactions. Since major incidents are few and far between, most emergency responders have not experienced many of them. We get so involved with the complex technical aspects of an incident that we forget our ultimate objective and overreact to intermediate concerns.

To paraphrase an old joke, when you’re up to your hips in alligators, it’s difficult to remind yourself that your initial objective was to drain the swamp. We tend to concentrate on every possible contingency and all possible mixtures of the chemicals we are facing. The fact is, the majority of the time we have mentally made matters far worse than they actually are. Multiple failures of packages and containers are so rare that they are almost nonexistent. Most of the time we are dealing with one chemical and one or two individual packages that have failed and have released part of their contents.

However, since we rarely can see the condition of the packages, we tend to “worst case” the incident. We should concentrate our efforts on gathering additional information. This is sometimes hard to remember when we are so concerned with the chemistry of what might be happening. We easily can be led into taking unnecessary courses of action, which may cause more problems than they solve.


Several years ago east of Phoenix a train derailed, spilling a few thousand gallons of sulfuric acid from overturned railroad tank cars The accident occurred in a remote farming area, and there were no structures for more than a mile. In a premature concern for neutralizing the acid, responders dumped several cubic yards of crushed limestone into a standing puddle of several hundred gallons of sulfuric acid.

A large white cloud several miles long was generated by the energetic reaction between the acid and the limestone. Unfortunately, several field hands were working in the vicinity and drove into the cloud. They soon showed symptoms of respiratory distress and had to be hospitalized. Although the extent of their injuries is questionable, the lawsuit that they have filed is certain to end in a predictable verdict.

The sulfuric acid was slowly soaking into the ground in the railroad right-of-way, causing no particular damage. There were no life safety hazards and no property exposures. In a well-intentioned effort to neutralize some of the spilled acid, responders made matters significantly worse. On a smaller scale, we may be guilty of acting the same way at many incidents.

Several years ago a small propane delivery truck overturned on a freeway exit south of Phoenix. There was a minor leak in the plumbing, but the inexperienced driver didn’t know how to stop it. Emergency responders obtained a piece of pipe from a nearby town, attached it to the end of the offloading hose, and flared the tank contents. They departed the scene while the gas was still flaring, not realizing that propane cools as it vaporizes.

When the tank’s internal pressure dropped to zero, the fire at the end of the pipe went out. Then the sun’s heat raised the liquefied petroleum gas temperature, the pressure in the tank increased, and unignited propane began to flow out the end of the pipe. This dangerous situation wasn’t discovered immediately, increasing the potential for a major incident. Again, the responders actually made the incident worse.


Remember that our primary task at hazardous-materials incidents is to protect the public. Property and the environment take a decided second place when compared with the possibility of personal injuries. We sometimes forget that injuries to ourselves are just as undesirable as exposing the public to harm. We must ask ourselves if any truck, building, or piece of dirt is worth getting someone hurt. Property and environmental considerations are really the problem of the company responsible for the spill or the cleanup contractor it hires.

Some hazardous-materials response courses make the mistake of teaching one of firefighting’s old slogans, “The first five minutes are worth the next five hours.” While this is usually applicable to structural firefighting, it just does not translate well into the hazardous-materials realm. Perhaps the Boston (MA) Fire Department sums it up best in its hazardous-materials incident response procedure: “REMEMBER. QUICK AGGRESSIVE ACTION HAS NO PI-ACE AT A HAZARDOUS MATERIALS INCIDENT, and may only lead to unnecessary exposure of personnel. Often times the proper action decided upon may be to take NO ; ACTION beyond keeping department and civilian personnel at a safe distance. There may be situations where | NO ACTION will be the only safe action….”

An ancient Greek physician born centuries ago might make a good incident commander today. He would i remind us to ‘First, do no harm.

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