Tear Gas Prank in Busy Restaurant Triggers incident That Yields Lessons
A tear gas canister set off by a prankster at a crowded Halloween party tested the emergency medical service capabilities and communications system of the Fairfax City, Va., Fire and Rescue Service.
The scene of the incident was a below-grade, fully sprinklered restaurant filled to capacity with 210 people. Another 200 waited outside the door to enter on a one-for-one basis with departing customers. Fortunately the Library Restaurant had adequate exit capacity according to the NFPA Life Safety Code.
Based on information received in the alarm center, one engine company and a truck company were dispatched for what was initially believed to be a minor ventilation operation. Instead, they found almost 150 individuals who had exited the building, many of whom were suffering the ill effects of the irritant gas. Three members of the engine company began initial care, administering oxygen, trying to calm the more hysterical ones and make them as comfortable as possible until further medical assistance arrived.
Began primary search
Meanwhile the engine company officer conducted a primary search of the premises. As he descended the stairway into the restaurant, he encountered 30 more customers suffering from the gas and whose behavior was bordering on panic. He assured them that the situation was under control and directed them outside in an orderly manner. No one else was found.
When the truck company arrived, the members conducted a secondary search. Fire fighters entering the structure used demand-type breathing apparatus with the emergency bypass valves open to prevent inward leakages of the gas. They confirmed that the interior was clear of customers and staff. Ventilation operations were started and grade-level stores and offices were checked.
With the building secured and the overall operation seemingly stable, many of the patrons started to experience more serious symptoms from the effects of the gas. In addition to tearing eyes, coughing and skin irritation, some disturbing behavioral patterns were noted. This necessitated calling for additional ambulances, alerting local hospitals and designating a triage officer.
To assist in controlling the operation, an order was given for the incoming ambulances to report to a staging area. The vehicles’ crews were to remain with the units until needed.
After some confusion in communications from the hospital, through the fire alarm headquarters and to the emergency scene, it was then understood that the victims need not be transported to the hospital. Specified on-scene treatment was said to be sufficient.
The logistics required to carry out the hospital’s orders, however, were an area of concern. The victims were to shower, change clothes and walk off any residual effects of the gas. Fire station facilities were made available for showering and extra linen was picked up from the hospital. A telephone line was also made available for outgoing calls.
As it turned out, only a few of the victims used the station facilities. The majority chose to go to their homes to carry out the hospital’s instructions. A dozen of the more seriously exposed individuals were treated at the hospital.
Tear gas effects
Tear gas is a not-uncommon substance, and an incident like this could happen anywhere. Military and police organizations use tear gas, but the material is not limited to their use. Information should be readily available on the nature of tear gas so that decisions about handling an incident can be made with a minimum of delay.
Tear gases fall into four classifications. Chioroacetophenone (CN) and O-Chiorobenzalmalononitrile (CS) are solids. Chloroacetophonone solution
(CNB) and Chloroacetophone solution
(CNC) are liquids.
Each of the compounds cited causes tearing and skin irritation, and CS also acts as a vomiting agent and may cause temporary pain in the chest.
Fire department personnel should not handle broken packages of tear gas without full protective clothing and SCBA. Any material which may have contacted the body should be washed away with copious amounts of water or soap and water.
Military manuals indicate that certain decontaminants, if available, be used for the various agents. For CS, use water or 5 percent sodium bisulfite solution. Aeration is sufficient for vapors. For CN, CNB and CNC, use hot sodium carbonate solution, hot sodium hydroxide or hot soapy water. Exposed clothing should be washed.
Inspection programs are essential. This incident could have developed into a major tragedy with more serious injuries if all 400 people had been allowed inside the restaurant at the same time.
For the past two years the Fairfax City Fire and Rescue Service has been engaged in an active inspection program of all places of public assembly. On weekends and weeknights at least one engine company conducted in-service inspections, with head counts, exit checks and other items related to life safety.
When violations were noted they were discussed with the owner or operator. Only once in two years have the police been required to assist the department in obtaining compliance. The program has led to a good working relationship with owners and operators of the this type occupancy as well as their recognition of the life safety problem that exists in them. The results of this program were demonstrated at this incident.
Direct radio or telephone communications between the hospital and the scene were found to be preferable to having information routed from the hospital to fire alarm headquarters and then retold over the radio to the scene. Clearer and quicker information is made possible by the direct radio link.
If the hospital cannot provide decontamination facilities, an additional fire department response should go to a remote facility, such as a high school where more room can be made available, to set up for decontaminating the victims. Ambulances could transport to this site.
Better crowd control would have helped. Law enforcement assistance was limited because of the need for respiratory protection to enter the area. Additional fire companies should be called for and assigned this task.
Since the incident, the department has placed in service positive-pressure breathing apparatus, thus eliminating the need for the emergency bypass valve use described previously.
Secondly, the on-duty battalion chief now inspects the public assembly occupancies for life safety requirements during high-incident times. This has proven to be more cost-effective and permits greater flexibility in terms of response.
The rationale for this change is that it allows the first-due units to remain within an adequate response distance in their districts. It also allows for lower vehicle costs. For example, one study showed that it cost $1.14 per mile to operate a truck company and 81 cents per mile for an engine company. The chief’s vehicle costs are considerably lower.
One additional point is that a single chiefs vehicle avoids a conflict with building owners or operators who complain that business is harmed when larger fire apparatus is parked outside during inspections. They have argued that this causes undue concern among customers about a nonexistent emergency situation, especially when a number of fire fighters walk through. Therefore a single battalion chief maintains a low profile and at the same time fulfills one of the department’s goals.
The Fairfax City Fire and Rescue Service is composed of 39 career personnel and 45 to 50 volunteer members. The department operates three engines, a truck, a foam unit, an ambulance and a medical intensive care unit. Fairfax City, with 20,000 population in 9 square miles, is in Fairfax County, Va, a suburban area in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., region.