Complacency can kill at haz-mat incidents

BY MICHAEL J. BARAKEY

On September 9, 2005, the City of Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department (VBFD), the Virginia Beach Police Department (VBPD), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Joint Terrorism Task Force were faced with a challenging event. This incident necessitated that responders stay focused and patient and rely on training and research while consulting with subject matter experts on how to safely mitigate an explosive scene.

BACKGROUND

At 18:07 hours, the VBFD arrived on the scene to assist the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes the VBPD’s Special Investigations Division (SID), an Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent, and the FBI. The Task Force conducted a consent search of a residential property. The owner of the property gave the agents and officers consent to search for manufactured explosives. The suspect, a 19-year-old male living at home, bragged to his former employer that he was manufacturing explosives in his home. His supervisor notified FBI headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, and provided the tip that led the Task Force to the residence. During the search, the FBI found a potato gun, drugs, household chemicals, and unknown chemical slurry in the suspect’s bedroom (photo 1). This slurry was in a clear glass beaker; there were crystals on top of the liquid and on the bottom of the beaker.

THE REQUEST FOR HAZ MAT

To better equip the haz mat team for responses, which had increased as a result of “powder” events post-9-11, the VBFD purchased a chemical identifier known as the HazMat ID. The device has been used as an initial field test to identify unknown substances at suspected crime scenes. We have resolved hundreds of incidents quickly and accurately using the chemical identifier.

The fire department’s involvement at this incident began with a phone call from the VBPD to Fire Station 3, which houses the haz mat team. A member of the VBPD, also a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, requested the haz mat unit to “test” the unknown chemical solution. Squad 3, staffed by four firefighters-one a haz mat specialist and two haz mat technicians-responded. Based on previous chemical and powder events, the VBPD and VBFD’s haz mat team developed a cooperative working relationship, which provided a coordinated effort for identifying and mitigating unknown liquids and solids at suspected crime scenes.


(1) Photos by Lorenzo Godette, Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, unless otherwise noted.

As the haz mat team members prepared to respond to this request, they were expecting a routine incident. The members’ initial expectations and thoughts were as follows: (1) Since the VBPD and federal agents were on-scene, this indicated a safe and secured scene; and (2) the police wanted an unknown solution tested for the purpose of identification and possible prosecution. Similar requests and previous incidents were handled without incident. The goal was to sample, test, mitigate, and resolve the situation.


(2) Photo by Scott Shields, Virginia Beach Police Department.

Fortunately, the same officer who requested the haz mat team also placed a phone call to the supervisor of fire investigations asking under which code the suspect could be charged for having a potato gun. During this brief phone conversation, the supervisor of fire investigations became skeptical of the situation. Because of this, she advised the battalion chief of that district that Haz Mat was already requested and the VBPD was unsure of the identity of the substance. Together, because of the limited information, they decided to upgrade the response and handle this incident as a suspicious device or explosive. This decision allowed a coordinated response of fire and rescue units to the scene. Battalion 3, Fire Investigator 6, Haz Mat Squad 3, Engine 19, Safety 1, and Ambulance 522R were dispatched. All units were now requested and dispatched per policy.

MULTIPLE AGENCIES: COORDINATION AND CONTROL

City code and VBFD policy designate the fire department as the lead agency at incidents with a suspicious device or explosive. Duties are outlined as follows:

• The battalion chief maintains command and control of the incident scene to include accountability of all responders and agencies.

• The fire investigator investigates the case and prosecutes.

• The engine company responds because of the threat of explosion as well as for suppression and medical needs.

• The ambulance treats and transports injured civilians or responders. Entries are made in close coordination with the VBPD’s bomb team, since the team is trained to handle and mitigate suspicious devices or explosives. The bomb team enters to x-ray, shoot, render safe, handle, or move the device or explosive.

SIZE-UP


(3) Photo by Don Noha, Virginia Beach Police Department.

On arrival of the fire department, Battalion 3 established incident command, and accountability was initiated. All units were staged two blocks away while Fire Investigator 6 contacted agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force. At the request of the fire investigator, the officer of the haz mat team and the engine company entered the end-unit townhouse in a densely populated residential neighborhood. The mood was casual; the suspect was still on the scene and talking with investigators and agents. The fire personnel were escorted to the second floor. A desk was just inside the threshold of an interior bedroom door (photo 2). On the desk was a beaker containing the unknown chemical. The appearance of this chemical slurry was clear; crystals were on the bottom and top of a clear glass 300-ml beaker (photo 3). The beaker was identical to the glassware found in a school chemistry class or laboratory. The crystals were moving in all directions, mimicking the Atari game “Asteroids.” Inside the bedroom were files containing the Anarchist’s Cookbook and The Terrorist Handbook (photos 4, 5).


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The haz mat team began to gather information and a look at the beaker. Once again, the police requested that the haz mat team sample and test the unknown chemical with the chemical identifier. Through training and field experience, which includes a chemistry of hazardous materials course, the haz mat specialist on the scene was able to immediately challenge this request. He determined the chemical mixture “unstable” because of the presence of crystals in the beaker (photo 6).


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The haz mat team then asked the agents what the suspect said was in the beaker. They replied: “He had tried to make an explosive but was allowing it to de-thaw after he realized how dangerous it was.” Since that day, the beaker was left undisturbed on his desk. The police made additional requests to have the unknown chemical tested.

INCIDENT ACTION PLAN

The initial action plan of sampling and identifying had changed to an entirely different strategy, isolation and research. This somewhat relaxed scene became a “hot zone” with defined isolation zones. Identifying and determining the stability of the substance led to an intense research and data-collection period. Fire Investigator 6 and the Squad 3 officer interviewed the suspect. Containers of muriatic acid, acetone, and Baquacil® nonchlorine shock/oxidizer were found in the suspect’s room (photos 7-9). He admitted to making acetone peroxide.


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This was now a crime scene involving a hazardous material and an explosive. Unsure about how to handle the substance and considering the complexity of the resolution, the incident commander established life safety as the priority. The police, who had been on the scene for several hours, now became part of the fire department’s command structure. The scene was dynamic: There were as many ideas on how to resolve the incident as responders on the scene. The incident commander decided to concentrate on research to identify a resolution. The incident action plan reflected this decision.

RESEARCH


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The haz mat team initiated research based on the information gained from the suspect and his downloaded materials. Simultaneously, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management’s (VDEM) hazardous material officer (HMO) was advised of the event and the substance. The HMO suggested contacting a chemist to serve as a subject matter expert. The research group made this its priority.


8 and 9

Immediately, the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) in Richmond, Virginia, was contacted. Several conversations with chemists at the lab indicated they would not be able to assist because the solution in question was an explosive. The DCLS’ advice was to contact the FBI in Quantico, Virginia, and have a chemist assist in the mitigation. The DCLS did say, however, that the substance was highly heat, shock, and friction sensitive. Its advice was, “Do not stress the crystals.”


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As the research continued, cross-referencing the Anarchist Cookbook and reinterviewing the suspect, the chemical mixture was verified as a peroxide-based explosive (photo 10). According to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bulletin, it is highly explosive and has an unstable molecular structure that is shock, heat, and friction sensitive. Furthermore, it was believed that the suspect specifically made triacetone triperioxide (TATP) and that when he realized the danger of TATP, he tried to make the mixture “more stable” by keeping it in the refrigerator. Research determined that this was a myth, because once the temperature is greater than 10°C, it becomes dicycloacetone peroxide, which is so unstable and sensitive that it has no use in field explosives.1

During the interview, the suspect admitted that he realized just how dangerous the mixture was and that he removed it from the refrigerator and placed it in on his desk in his bedroom. It sat there, undisturbed, for two months until the search and discovery by the Task Force. Traditional research did not provide methods for neutralizing the explosive. It became apparent that resolution would require the intervention of a subject matter expert well versed in the mitigation of explosive devices.

The identity of the peroxide-based explosive was just the beginning of this unique haz mat incident. How were we to mitigate and make the substance safe? To this point, we knew one thing: “Do not stress the crystals.” It was decided to concentrate on finding a chemist who could talk the haz mat team through the process of making the explosive safe or having a chemist respond to the scene to provide guidance.

WHAT HAZARDS WERE PRESENT?

Peroxide-based explosives were used in several high-profile terrorist attacks over the past several years. Most recently, and still fresh in responders’ minds, were the July 7, 2005, London Terrorist Bombings. Three peroxide-based devices were placed on the city subway system, and one device was placed on a city bus. Fifty-six people were killed, including four bombers.

In December 2001, Richard Reid attempted to detonate a shoe bomb onboard American Airlines Flight 63. Investigators determined the materials in his shoe were plastic explosives with a TATP detonator.

Finally, many Palestinian suicide attacks have involved peroxide-based explosives. TATP is a favorite ingredient of these suicide bombers.2 Even professional chemists have been injured and killed by accidents involving acetone peroxide.

SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTS

An FBI agent who was now on the scene contacted the FBI Explosives Unit (Quantico) at the direction of the DCLS. The same advice was relayed: “Do not stress the crystals.”

Also, on the recommendation of the VDEM’s HMO, a phone call was placed to Reactives Management Corporation, a local company equipped to handle explosives and dispose of unexploded ordnance.3 We were able to contact the owner of the company, a certified safety professional. Based on our description of the chemical and information provided by the suspect, she advised that the only way to render this substance safe was to dilute it or break the chemical bonds. She stressed that we should not touch the beaker because the mixture could explode. She added, “Whatever you do, do not stress the crystals.”

The objective was to render the substance safe and thus break the chemical bond. To do this, we had to wash the crystals into solution. To accomplish this, she recommended using a weak solution of sodium hydroxide and water to wash the peroxide back into solution. Her instructions were, “Squirt the solution of sodium hydroxide and water under the cellophane until all the peroxide crystals are washed into solution. Once the crystals are no longer visible, the explosive hazard is greatly reduced.”

RISK-BENEFIT ANALYSIS

The incident commander was now considering the risk-benefit ratio of making an offensive entry to dissolve the crystals. To accomplish this, members of the bomb team would have to enter the structure to dissolve the crystals into solution.

This information changed the complexity of the incident. What would be the benefit of an offensive maneuver? Other solutions actively discussed included the following:

• What would happen if we did nothing? How long would it take for the crystals to dissolve and go back to solution without a chemical intervention?

• Could the bomb team disrupt the crystals with a water shot?

• Could the bomb team pick up the beaker, overpack it, and drive it to a remote location and detonate?

• Where could we find sodium hydroxide on a Friday night at 20:45 hours?

Realizing the complexity of the incident and the potential for detonation, additional responders were requested. The Virginia Beach Bomb Squad provided additional bomb technicians and supervisors with apparatus equipped to move explosives to remote locations for detonation. The police sent additional officers for evacuation duty and a supervisor to serve as a liaison at the command post. Additional members of the haz mat team arrived on Haz Mat 1; also arriving were Engine 9, Ladder 16, the public information officer, the EMS supervisor, the duty district chief, and an additional agent with a chemical and haz mat background from the FBI and VDEM’s HMO.

ARRIVAL OF CHEMIST

Applied Marine Technology, Inc. (AMTI), based out of Virginia Beach, was contacted and asked for a subject matter expert. AMTI and the VBFD have an established public/private relationship. AMTI has an explosive ordnance disposal division and a research and analysis division.4 The company employs chemists with experience from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who are experts in explosives. Immediately on request, AMTI sent three chemists to the scene; they arrived at 21:30 hours.

The civilian chemists were now at the command post and were surrounded by representatives of the on-scene jurisdictions. The incident commander led the briefing. The objective was to determine how these experts could best assist in mitigating the incident. Many ideas were considered, but the chemists felt they needed to see the beaker before they could make a decision regarding the substance and its hazard.

Despite the opposition of law enforcement, the incident commander decided to have the chemists escorted into the structure for a reconnaissance of the chemical. The police were not pleased with the decision to allow civilians to enter a crime scene that posed the threat of an explosion. These concerns were respected, and alternatives were considered. Ultimately, after considering everyone’s input, the incident commander allowed the chemists access to the scene for reconnaissance and fact finding.

RECONNAISSANCE AND FINDINGS

The three chemists, escorted by Fire Investigator 6 and the officer from Squad 3, entered. They observed the beaker and its contents and interviewed the suspect. Their findings were dramatic and frank: The crystals, if disturbed, could blow off the entire second floor of the townhouse and probably injure or kill anyone inside. They also said that picking up or disturbing the crystals most likely would cause an explosion.

They recommended that the crystals be diluted into solution using a 50-percent solution of methanol and water. AMTI supplied the methanol needed to perform this task.

MITIGATION AND RESOLUTION

The VBPD Bomb Team agreed with the chemist’s recommendation and, while respecting the hazard, prepared to enter. The haz mat team procured two 60-cc syringes from an IV box and prepared the mixture of 50 percent methanol in water. Fire apparatus were moved from the staging area into the warm zone. A water supply was secured, and a four-firefighter rapid intervention team was assigned. The police evacuated a block on both sides of the end-unit townhouse. In the back of the haz mat trailer, the bomb technicians practiced injecting the methanol/water solution into a simulated beaker with cellophane. To allow for better control and placement of the methanol, and to limit shock or friction, a Teflon® 16-gauge 214-inch angio catheter from the IV box was placed on the end of the syringe. This provided a nozzle per se and the ability to direct the methanol solution in a controlled manner. The haz mat team managed the activities, which were observed and verified by the chemists.

With all the suppression and rescue companies in full personal protective equipment (PPE) and in place, the incident commander placed two bomb technicians (T1 and T2) in the structure at 23:06 hours. Because of the tight quarters and stairwell, they decided not to wear a bomb suit. The PPE worn by the bomb technicians were Nomex® suits, a Kevlar® helmet, and flack vests. After a thorough briefing from the chemists, the technicians entered the second floor of the structure. They fully understood the hazard and the importance of avoiding activities that could create shock, friction, or heat.

The entry team frequently radioed updated reports to the incident commander. At 23:16 hours, the entry team informed the incident commander that it was injecting the methanol, there were with no adverse reactions, and the crystals were dissolving as planned. They continued this slow process. At 23:25 hours, the team reported that the crystals were completely in solution. The technicians then overpacked the chemical and removed it to the bomb vehicle. The incident was rendered safe.

The bomb team exited and was debriefed at the command vehicle. The expertise and guidance of the many subject matter experts and chemists that night were invaluable to the safe and effective mitigation of this explosive situation. All involved in this incident understood and respected the complexity of the incident, which was an invaluable learning experience.

LESSONS LEARNED

Remain skeptical and on your toes. This was a high-risk, low-frequency incident for responders. The result could have led to the death or injury of police investigators, federal agents, and firefighters. Complacency is a cancer. Be prepared mentally; have proper resources on the scene; and use all avenues, conventional and unconventional, to mitigate safely. A skeptical fire investigator and haz mat specialist questioned the ordinary, saying the information just did not add up. Many questions led to more research, which produced an educated decision that was not popular with all agencies at the scene. Treat all incidents as though they may prevent you or your company from returning home. When you lack visual evidence or identified hazards, stay skeptical and question anything that seems out of place or unusual. Never “trust” other agencies’ assessment that the scene is safe and secure. Size-up, which should be constantly occurring, is everyone’s responsibility.

Establish incident command. On incidents like this, priorities and objectives are not easily defined or visible from the outside of the structure. While in an investigative mode, be prepared for the scene to deteriorate and escalate quickly. The incident command system starts when the first unit arrives. That unit should declare and announce command. Accountability is the responsibility of command. Even in an investigative mode, know who and where your personnel are at all times. Initially, develop a verbal incident action plan that is understood by all arriving on the scene. Establish and announce a staging area that is accessible but in a cold zone. Determine prior to an event what jurisdiction or agency is responsible for the incident scene. Is it a single jurisdiction with multiple agencies responding, or do individuals representing involved agencies or jurisdictions share command responsibilities? With so many agencies on the scene, maintain uniform and constant communications. Ensure common terminology, and have all arriving agency representatives check in with the incident commander.

Safety. The VBFD has an on-duty shift safety officer who responds to working incidents as part of the command staff. This is invaluable for overseeing the safety of a scene as dynamic and as fluid as this one quickly became. Since the command post was in the cold zone and blocks away from the scene, the incident commander could not oversee the safety of all the responders and jurisdictions arriving. Plan ahead for large incidents, and have a duty shift safety officer, or equivalent, respond to the scene. Incident priorities, including life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation, are necessary to develop the incident’s goals and objectives. Use a risk-benefit analysis to confirm decisions pertaining to life safety and incident stabilization. Don’t be afraid to change the incident action plan as the goals and objectives change, to ensure life safety and incident stabilization.

Introduction of subject matter experts is at the discretion of the incident commander. Don’t feel inadequate or unprepared if faced with a unique incident. Use all available resources to make educated and informed decisions. Subject matter experts can at least assist with developing goals and objectives to mitigate the incident.

Keep all parties well informed. During long investigative periods and research, keep everyone involved and in the “know.” In this case, mitigation took five hours. No injuries occurred because of the methodical approach of the haz mat units and the incident commander’s holding firm to the incident priorities while developing goals and objectives that protected life and stabilized the incident. In the fire service, being methodical may sometimes be seen as being indecisive or unprepared. When personnel are informed, they are less likely to become complacent. As a result, information flow to the staged personnel is critical. Personnel should be briefed and keep abreast of the hazard, the projected path of destruction the explosive may create, and the threats of injury and fire. They should have the latitude to preplan a water supply, exposures, RIT procedures, and utility control during the investigative phase.

Requests for units need to be uniform and consistent for all suspicious packages. Develop and use policies and procedures with a defined response matrix. Do not deviate from these policies and procedures. The way the haz mat team was requested violated established policies and procedures. This potentially placed the haz mat team in danger, as the team prepared to respond with little information. The fire investigator supervisor’s following of established policy and procedures made a favorable outcome possible. Only after an investigation has occurred should the incident commander release responding or on-scene personnel.

Training. The VBFD has excellent relationships, through training and incident responses, with local, state, and federal agencies. Practice with these agencies, and determine whom to call for assistance when necessary. Preplan by developing a phone list pertaining to incidents that may require outside intervention. The relationships among the parties in this incident were forged prior to the incident, which saved time and patience. The post 9-11 world needs interoperability among a multitude of agencies. Develop these relationships early and train with the local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies prior to the incident.

Private relationships. Develop relationships with private companies that employ subject matter experts. Learn what your community has to offer for high-risk, low-frequency incidents. Chemists are not usually firefighters. Understand your limitations, and develop a relationship with these experts prior to the incident. Develop the ability to find chemicals or substances that can assist in the mitigation of haz mat incidents after hours and at night. Supplies and resources to mitigate suspicious package incidents and chemical incidents are more complicated post-9-11. Take time now to learn what the community can do for your fire department and haz mat team.

References

1. Internet: Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acetone_Perioxide, page 2 of 3.

2. “Peroxide-Based Improvised Explosives,” U.S Department of Homeland Security TRIPwire, October 3, 2005.

3. http://www.reactives.com/.

4. http://www.amti.net/index.htm/.

MICHAEL J. BARAKEY is a captain with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, where he is currently the acting battalion chief of administration. Previously, he was a captain assigned to Special Operations HazMat. He is a Virginia Department of Emergency Management haz mat specialist, Virginia fire instructor III, and a national registered EMT-Paramedic. Barakey is a haz mat specialist with VA-TF2 Urban Search and Rescue Team. He has a master’s degree in public administration from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

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