Taking chances is part of the fire fighting profession. Taking unnecessary risks shouldn’t be. Safety awareness, particularly in hazardous materials situations, must be learned and practiced by all fire fighters.

When common sense and a consern for life and safely demand immediate evacuation of an area, there is always one person fighting to get to the action-a fire fighter.

The emergency service field is fraught with risks, and the fire fighter has to face a great many dangers. This is why consideration of the safety aspects of the emergency service field is so important, and proper safety precautions must be taken to reduce risks as much as possible.

It is unfortunate that many of the injuries that result are violations of safety standards and should never have happened.

One of the biggest exposures to lifethreatening situations occurs at hazardous materials incidents. Here, unknown, harmful chemicals, which can cause immediate and/or long-range health problems, have been released under abnormal conditions Vet, it is at this time, in the rush to get the job done, that fire fighters take the most chances. Unfortunately, too many of them are losing the battle to injury, permanent disability and death.

Safety slips outside school

Look at the problem from the time a new recruit enters the fire service. Safety is taught in formal training classes and, in some cases, even stressed by the instructors. The new fire fighter is watched, guided, taught and trained to think safety. So, for a period of a few weeks, either the career or volunteer responds in as safe a manner as possible under the watchful eyes of the instructor. Then, what happens when the training class is completed?

Well, when the recruit leaves the school, everything goes to pieces. Peer pressure from personnel in the station encourages the recruit “to forget all of that junk you learned in school. Now, you are out in the real world and we will show you how it should be done.”

As a result, officers in the field show the new fire fighter shortcuts for doing things at an incident. “This is the way our crew will operate.” If the newcomer does not go along with this procedure, there will be personnel problems. So, sometimes even reluctantly, the new fire fighter is molded into the image of the officer; and, unfortunately, this might not result in the safest of operations. For the most part, the structural fire fighting is accomplished and the fire fighter is lulled into a false sense of security.

Then, there is a response to a hazardous materials incident and all bets are off.

Instead of emphasizing safety in recruit school and then turning these people over to field officers, a safety training class for departmental personnel needs to be taught on a continuing basis. Safety training in responding to hazardous materials incidents should cover general safety precautions, identification of specific product hazards, specialized equipment, control of personnel and special EMS assistance.

Further information on specific training curriculums for various levels of hazardous materials incidents are covered in the February 1983 issue of Fire Engineering, page 42.

General safety precautions

Many times, the first-arriving officer at the scene of an incident is not aware that there are hazardous materials involved. Therefore, it is necessary to take proper precautions before getting involved with the incident.

For example, how many officers would order full protective clothing and breathing apparatus for a fire at a landfill or for a waste container fire? Unfortunately, not many. Yet dumping of chemical wastes makes a fire of this type extremely hazardous.

So, what general precautions should be taken when responding to an incident where there is a potential for chemical involvement?

  1. Full protective clothing, including pants, coat, boots, helmet and gloves.
  2. Positive-pressure breathing apparatus.
  3. Coverage of all exposed skin, particularly at the wrists and at the ears and neck.

Most fire fighters will indicate that this is standard practice for structural fires, so why emphasize it for hazardous materials incidents? Unfortunately, many hazardous materials incidents take place outside structures (railroads, roadways, dumps and storage tanks). For some unknown reason, the fire service has gotten the idea that exterior work is safer and, therefore, less protection is necessary. This is certainly the wrong attitude and contributes to a great many injuries.

Product hazard identification

Each chemical shipped has hazards that are different from another chemical. Since there are over 35,000 different chemicals, pesticides, trade-name products and waste materials, it would be impossible for a single individual to be knowledgeable about each one. In fact, within the chemical companies themselves, an individual probably will be an expert in only three or four different chemicals. As a result, the incident commander has to rely on other sources for information about the hazard of a specific chemical.

There are certain clues in determining the hazard of a chemical. If the product is being transported by rail or road, then it might have a placard on the outside of the transporting vehicle. By federal law, a placard goes on the four sides of the transporting vehicle. The placard could warn of the basic overall hazard or, for bulk shipment, it might indicate the specific product using a four-digit identification number.

There are, however, complex regulations and exceptions to these rules which permit the movement of these products without the vehicle being marked in any way.

From a safety viewpoint, remember the following shortcomings of the placards:

  • Usually only one hazard is indicated even if the product has several hazards. For example, a product could be flammable and poisonous but the product will only have a flammable placard.
  • The degree of the hazard is not indicated. How flammable is flammable? A product with a flash point of —45° will have the same placard as one with a flash point of +90°. Yet, handling the incident will be very different.
  • Mixed loads get to use the DANGEROUS warning placard which does not indicate the specific commodities being carried.
  • Some chemicals transported by a truck that has a gross weight below 1000 pounds do not require placards.

Another clue to the hazard is the label which goes on the outside of the shipping container. Only one label is required, so when the containers are stacked, the label is easily hidden. Again, as in the case of the placards, the label only indicates the general hazard and not the specific product. In some cases, if there are dual hazards, two labels are required on the container.

Another way of determining the product is through markings on the outside of the transporting vehicle or storage facility. For example, on railcars certain chemicals must have their names in at least 4-inch-high letters.

Other markings involve the display of the NFPA 704 symbol on storage tanks. These markings indicate the general hazards and precautions which should be taken.

Finally, there are the shipping papers. These are usually kept with the individual in charge of the transporting vehicle. So, the pilot keeps the airbill, the conductor on the train keeps the waybill and the truck driver keeps the bill of lading.

Once the product’s identity is known, the hazards can be determined from reference sources. Guides published by the Department of Transportation, the Chemical Transportation Emergency Center (CHEMTREC) and the chemical companies themselves can provide assistance on the hazards of specific chemicals. There are so many hazardous materials textbooks and reference books that the incident commander could outfit a bookmobile and still not have enough room. In addition, many of these reference texts offer conflicting information and advice.

So, it has taken all this time just to identify the product and determine its hazard. While this is going on, fire fighters who have been exposed could be in danger. Therefore, each fire department needs to develop a system for quickly identifying the hazard.

“For some unknown reason, the fire service has gotten the idea that exterior work is safer and, therefore, less protection is necessary.”

Standard protective clothing and breathing apparatus is not always sufficient protection for chemical incidents. Some chemicals will penetrate rubber, which rules out fire fighter boots, while other chemicals will pass through leather. As a result of these hazards, special protective clothing needs to be used.

It is impossible to train all personnel in the department to handle these special types of chemicals. Instead, the officer must recognize the particular type of incident and ask for the necessary special assistance. All 30,000 fire departments in the United States do not need special entry suits. A regional availability of this equipment is all that is necessary.

Control of personnel

At a hazardous materials incident, control of personnel at the scene is extremely important. This is particularly necessary where there is response of volunteer personnel to the scene from home or work. The officer needs an accurate count of who was there and for how long in order to be prepared for any health problems, as well as to have a head count in case of a violent accident.

Several fire departments have developed various techniques for keeping control of the number of personnel on the scene. These include:

  1. Leaving the name tag of each fire fighter at the command post or with the apparatus operator.
  2. Writing the fire fighter’s name at the command post.
  3. Keeping a roster of all personnel assigned to the particular apparatus in the cab of the response vehicle.
  4. Assigning a safety officer to control and record exposure times on the scene for the emergency personnel, particularly if there is a hazardous materials response team at the incident.

Sufficient personnel are needed at the scene to ensure that crews which have been working in the hazardous atmosphere can be rotated. This will prevent exposure or leaks even if proper safety precautions have been taken.

Special EMS assistance

While this article has focused on fire fighter handling of a hazardous materials incident, EMS personnel also need to be aware of the necessary safety precautions. When an individual cions a white EMS jacket and begins to perform emergency medical work, an invisible shield protects this individual from the chemical hazard, some think, Sound rediculous? Based upon observation at many incidents, not really.

Think about the last chemical incident which your department handled. If there were EMS personnel on the scene, did they have full protective clothing and breathing apparatus. Or, were they encased in a white coat, leather shoes, and without gloves? Certainly no protection for the individual

Yet, these EMS people are called upon to work in the toxic atmosphere as well as handle any civilian or emergenc y workers injured. Does decontamination occur before handling? Each of these items must be considered. For further information, see the article on EMS and hazardous materials incidents in the November 1982 issue of Fire Engineering, lust remember, that EMS personnel can also be injured and care must be exercised in handling, treating, and transporting individuals who have an injury due to exposure to chemicals. Items to consider include:

  • Special protection.
  • Decontamination of patient.
  • Decontamination of ambulance.
  • Protection of hospital emergency room from becoming contaminated.

Yes, fire fighters and EMS personnel must exercise care to provide for their own protection when responding to incidents involving chemicals. The product must be identified and its hazards determined, so that the proper protective clothing and as safe a procedure as possible can be utilized.

It is not possible to remove all risks to emergency response personnel at the scene of a hazardous materials incident However, with sufficient information, fire fighters can draw better odds.

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