Fixed facilities include large industrial complexes, warehouses, and small manufacturing sites. Every community, regardless of size, likely has one or more of each. Yet, what do first responders really know about the potential problems they could face if there were a release of hazardous materials stored or used at these facilities? Do you know how and when such releases should be reported or whether some facilities offer in-house technical expertise or other resources such as hazardous materials response teams first responders can use to their advantage? What about whether these resources would be available to respond to incidents that occur elsewhere in the community?

Have you actually gone beyond the gates of fixed facilities in your response area instead of just passing by? Have you ever spoken with safety representatives at larger facilities or reviewed copies of material safety data sheets (MSDSs) submitted to fire departments and local emergency planning committees before an emergency? If not, you may end up dealing with an incident involving a fixed facility incident no differently than you would one involving the landing of a spacecraft from another planet in our district.

To safely and effectively deal with fixed facility events, you must do your homework and be prepared. Remember that these locations have the potential to threaten not only employees within the facility but also the citizens who live and work nearby and the environment-often with little warning. Preparations for a hazardous materials incident response at a fixed facility should include attention to at least the following topics: emergency planning and hazard assessment, emergency release notification, on-site hazard assessments, first responder safety at fixed facility incidents, and resources from fixed facilities.


Conducting a planning and hazard assessment for any response to fixed facilities should include site visits as well as a comprehensive review of the information sent to fire departments and local emergency planning committees (LEPCs), as required by federal law. Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986, also known as the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), is intended to “encourage and support emergency planning efforts at the state and local levels and provide the public and local governments with information concerning potential chemical hazards present in their communities.” 1

The information fixed facilities are required to provide to first responders under EPCRA includes MSDSs and Tier reports. The MSDSs provide specific information relative to the hazardous materials’ chemical and physical properties and their associated health risks. Tier reports include Tier I reports identifying materials by categories that include health, fire, and reactivity hazards, along with their general storage location at a facility. Tier II reports provide greater detail than Tier I reports, including the names of specific chemicals and more detailed information about where these materials are located (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Tier II Report
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Submission of various MSDSs (or a list of MSDS chemicals) is required whenever a product is first present at a facility and when any changes occur regarding these materials. Although submission of a Tier I report is the minimum required by law, facilities can submit Tier II reports voluntarily, but they must also be submitted on the request of an LEPC or the local fire department. In addition, some states may require the submission of Tier II reports as a minimum. These reports must be submitted annually.

The submission of Tier reports and MSDSs is subject to reporting exemptions based on the type and amount of material involved. For example, facilities may be exempt from submitting Tier reports or MSDSs if they have on-site less than 10,000 pounds of materials considered by federal law to be a “hazardous chemical.” They may also be exempt from reporting the presence of materials defined by federal law as “extremely hazardous substances” if the amount on-site (measured in pounds) does not exceed established “threshold planning quantities.” (1)

Refer to 40 CFR 355, Appendix A for a list of “extremely hazardous substances” and 40 CFR 302.4 for a list of “hazardous substances.” 29 CFR 1910.1200 (Hazard Communication) provides a definition of the term “hazardous chemical.”

Do you know . . . ?


  • Do you know who from your department is a member of your community’s LEPC?
  • Does your state or the LEPC require Tier II reports?
  • How is information from the MSDS and Tier reports submitted to the LEPC made available to first responders in your department?
  • Does everyone in your department know how to access this information for planning purposes?
  • Is this information readily available during an emergency, including those that might occur at night or on weekends and holidays?

Remember that for most first responders, the challenge is usually getting the information from MSDS and Tier reports to the front seat of their apparatus!


If there is an “accidental release” of a hazardous material at a fixed facility, just how will you learn about it? One way might be through the notification requirements for fixed facilities found in EPCRA. However, the requirements to report these releases are limited to materials such as “hazardous substances” or “extremely hazardous substances,” referred to earlier, and only when the amount of material released exceeds the established “reportable quantity.” (1)

When learning about the release of a hazardous material based on EPCRA notification requirements, the report likely will reference the weight of the released material measured in pounds. This is vitally important to first responders, since they are usually accustomed to defining the amount of a material released in terms of its volume measured in gallons. For example, a report indicating a release of 8,000 pounds of a liquid material with a weight of eight pounds per gallon equates to a 1,000-gallon release. You may encounter delays in determining the volume of material released since you must first learn its weight per gallon.

Fixed facilities are exempt from notifying the LEPC whenever an accidental release results in an “exposure to persons solely within the facility boundary.” (1) As a result, spills that exceed a reportable quantity but that have not exposed anyone beyond the site (such as a spill contained within a building) may not be reportable. However, if this same spill occurs outdoors and is contained within a dike, although the liquid may not result in an off-site exposure, potential vapors produced by the spill could still cause the release to be reportable.

Whenever a facility is required to make an emergency notification of a release because it exceeds an established reportable quantity and the release results in exposure beyond the facility boundaries, notifying the LEPC as required by EPCRA may not necessarily trigger an immediate response by first responders since EPCRA does not require this same facility to notify 9-1-1. Therefore, a factor in determining just when you will learn of any emergency release notification depends on how information regarding that notification is sent to the LEPC, who receives it, and how that information is then processed. If an emergency release notification report ends up in someone’s in-basket, it could be days before first responders learn of the incident.

The reality is that not all releases are catastrophic to the community. Therefore, the assistance of first responders for some incidents may not be requested or even desired. Instead, there may be sites with a response plan that calls for its own personnel or perhaps a commercial cleanup contractor to stop any release and clean up spilled material.

In situations such as these, you may never learn of a hazardous materials release or, if you do, you may learn of the event perhaps from a “third party” (such as a disgruntled employee who makes an anonymous complaint regarding a chemical release at the facility). You may be denied entry because facility representatives are confident in their ability to manage the event safely. Yet, you are probably in the best position to deal with what could become an immediate threat to public safety, regardless of EPCRA notification exceptions and in-house capabilities. Therefore, always remember the benefits of conducting preincident surveys, becoming familiar with facilities within the community, and developing good working relationships with representatives from these facilities that encourage notification of first responders directly through 9-1-1 for any incident involving the release or potential release of hazardous materials.

Do you know . . . ?

  • How are emergency release notifications required by EPCRA managed in your community?
  • Are first responders notified when these reports are received? If so, how are they notified and by whom? Has there ever been a delay in receiving notification of a release?
  • Are fixed facilities in your community encouraged to contact 9-1-1 if there is a chemical release?
  • Has your department ever learned about a hazardous materials release that had serious potential “after the fact” or perhaps from a “third party”?

When dealing with emergency notification of releases from fixed facilities, never forget your responsibility to notify the public. Although some communities may possess sophisticated means by which large facilities can immediately notify nearby exposures such as schools and businesses using portable radios with a dedicated radio frequency, other localities may be able to notify the public using a “reverse 9-1-1” system to deliver critical emergency information.

For most, though, providing emergency information to the public in a hazardous materials release requires the use of local radio and television stations and visits by public safety officials on foot or in vehicles to warn of appropriate actions to take. These actions can include evacuating those in harm’s way or perhaps advising the public to remain indoors (sheltering in place) until the danger has passed. Representatives from local and state emergency management agencies can provide valuable assistance to first responders in attempting to notify large numbers of citizens in a short time.

Do you know . . . ?

  • Do industrial facilities in your community have the ability to communicate with other sites and nearby exposures by radio or perhaps a direct phone link if there is a chemical release?
  • Do first responders in your department know how to quickly contact representatives from local and state emergency management agencies who can assist in notifying the public of emergencies involving hazardous materials and assist with evacuations or in-place sheltering? Can they contact these individuals at night or on weekends and holidays?


When dispatched to any emergency incident at a fixed facility, anticipate the involvement of hazardous materials, regardless of the type of response. Remember that an EMS call for “difficulty breathing” could be the result of an asthma attack or a chemical exposure; calls for a “gas” leak are difficult to assess unless first responders know just what kind of “gas” is involved. A reported “truck” fire could involve an employee’s personal pickup truck or a highway cargo tank containing thousands of gallons of a flammable liquid.

Once on site, conduct a hazard assessment of any material known or suspected of being involved by observing the presence of signs used in accordance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704, Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response. NFPA 704 “addresses the health, flammability, and instability hazards that are presented by short-term, acute exposure to a material under conditions of fire, spill, or similar emergencies”2 and indicates the degree of severity for each of these hazard categories using a numerical rating that ranges from 4, indicating a severe hazard, to zero, indicating a minimal hazard. The display of the numerical rating and the background color on the sign are specific for each hazard area.

Each sign also includes information on potential “special hazards” of materials. Indicators of special hazards include “W” (the letter “W” with a horizontal line through the center) for materials that react violently with water while the letters “OX” are used for materials that possess oxidizing properties. Figure 2 shows how the different components of an NFPA 704 sign are arranged; Figure 3 shows an example of an NFPA 704 sign.

Figure 2. NFPA 704 Sign Components
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NFPA 704 signs may be displayed on the exterior of buildings, on fences that surround outdoor storage areas, at access points to rooms, or on aboveground storage tanks. The means to display an NFPA 704 sign when more than one chemical is stored at a fixed facility in a building or a particular area include the “individual method,” used when only a few chemicals are present. Using this method, individual signs for each chemical are displayed; the chemical’s name is displayed below each sign. Where many chemicals are present, the standard allows for use of a “composite method,” where a single sign can summarize the maximum ratings contributed by materials in each category and the special hazard category for the building or area. (2, Section First responders are encouraged to consult this standard for additional information on its use.

Figure 3. Example of an NFPA 704 Sign
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The unfortunate reality is that despite the benefits of this system, there is no legal authority to enforce the use of NFPA 704, like all other NFPA standards, unless it is adopted as law by some governing body at the local or state level.

Do you know . . . ?

  • Does your community or state require compliance with NFPA 704?
  • If not, do any facilities in your community voluntarily comply with this standard?
  • If not, do members of your department encourage use of NFPA 704, especially during site surveys at fixed facilities?

An additional means for conducting hazard assessments on-site includes obtaining MSDSs; this may not be as easy as it may seem. As opposed to the reporting exemptions allowed by EPCRA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard 29 CFR 1910.1200 (Hazard Communication) requires that under most circumstances MSDSs be “readily accessible during each work shift to employees when they are in their work area.” 3 However, “in work operations where employees only handle chemicals in sealed containers that are not opened under normal conditions of use (such as those found in marine cargo handling or warehousing),” employers may not always provide employees with MSDS unless requested to do so by an employee. 4

Furthermore, rather than maintain paper copies of MSDSs on-site, this OSHA standard allows that “electronic access and other alternatives to maintaining paper copies of the MSDS are permitted as long as no barriers to immediate employee access in each workplace are created by such options.” (3) >Options for employers include electronic subscription services (such as fax or computer-based services) that will provide access to MSDSs.

Regardless of whether MSDSs are available on-site as paper copies or only by electronic access, once a building is evacuated during an emergency, the MSDS along with any means of electronic transmission are likely inside when first responders and everyone else are outside. However, if the required MSDSs have not been sent to the fire department and LEPC as a result of EPCRA reporting exemptions, first responders may still have some options.

They include calling CHEMTREC® at (800) 424-9300, contacting an MSDS subscription service, or contacting the manufacturer directly for any material involved. If a material safety data sheet is located, first responders can request it be faxed to a nearby location such as a police or fire station or perhaps even a neighboring business for subsequent delivery to the scene.

Do you know . . . ?

  • Has your department ever experienced a delay in obtaining MSDSs from facilities such as warehouses and retail outlets? If so, what steps were taken to obtain them?
  • When referring to any MSDS, do you always make sure the document is up to date?
  • Do first responders make extra copies of the MSDS available for others during an incident, such as medical crews, hospital personnel, and cleanup contractors?
  • Does your fire department use computer software with a database that contains MSDSs?
  • If so, are these MSDSs available for proprietary (brand name) products as well as individual chemicals? Are these MSDSs up to date?


On arrival at a fixed facility, maintaining a safe distance from any building known or suspected to be the site of a hazardous materials release is critical, especially if the items are potentially flammable or explosive. When dealing with a release of hazardous materials at a facility, rescuing anyone trapped inside or unaccounted for can create situations in which you may react instinctively and enter contaminated areas without first considering the potential dangers.

Of course, during many industrial accidents, the likelihood is that anyone exposed to a hazardous material will be brought to safety by their coworkers. Although this may result in more than one contaminated victim, first responders generally do not have to make the rescue.

On some occasions, however, first responders may need to encourage contaminated individuals in a dangerous area to retreat to safety by providing voice directions because the victims may be disoriented or chemical injuries to the eyes may have compromised their sight. Always resist the urge to rush in to attempt a rescue.

Any decision to enter a fixed facility is often risky. Vapors and gases can accumulate in high concentrations in parts of the buildings and in void spaces that defy detection, and ignitions sources may be plentiful.

Furthermore, you can easily become disoriented in these facilities, especially large industrial complexes, or you might travel a distance inside the building that will exceed the capacity of your air supply and prevent you from exiting safely.

To contain the release of some hazardous materials, you may request control of mechanical equipment such as valves, switches, and HVAC systems. Although representatives at fixed facilities can tell you how to use these systems and how to control electrical service, consider first whether operating this equipment would expose anyone to a hazardous environment or perhaps ignite a flammable atmosphere.

Do you know . . . ?

  • First responders should be prepared for facility employees who attempt to enter contaminated areas unprotected with little regard for their own safety to operate equipment as a means of stopping or controlling a release. These individuals may do this because they fear a major incident at their facility could result in the loss of jobs, or they may do so as a result of their dedication to protect the public from harm.

Some facilities have outdoor retention basins intended to prevent liquid spills from entering storm drains as well as dikes designed to contain leaks from aboveground liquid storage tanks.

Although these devices can limit the migration of liquids off-site, hazardous materials, once pooled, may produce vapors with potential health and fire risks that can harm unsuspecting first responders (photo 1).

(1) This outdoor retention basin is located at a fuel loading facility for highway cargo tanks. Storm water drains are in the area and feed into the basin. If there is a fuel spill, the basin is intended to contain any fuel that may enter these drains. This retention basin has a capacity of 8,200 gallons, less than that of a fully loaded cargo tank that operates out of the facility. First responders should remember that the surface area of any fuel contained in the retention basin has the potential to produce vapors with potential health and fire risks. Since storm water runoff will also fill this retention basin, this water must be pumped out periodically. The valves in the foreground are used to direct the flow of this water. Any fuel contained as a result of a spill is removed using a vacuum truck. (Photo by author.)
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There may also be drains intended for storm water runoff. Hazardous materials could enter these drains and contaminate nearby waterways. In these situations, if flammable materials are involved, they could produce vapors capable of reaching explosive concentrations at the site or perhaps even several miles away. The properties of any material can influence its behavior once released, including characteristics such as vapor density and specific gravity. First responders need to learn these properties sooner rather than later.

Do you know . . . ?

  • Do any facilities in your community have industrial retention basins?
  • Do facility representatives know the travel path of any storm drains on-site and the location of the outfall (discharge point)?
  • Are there valves that can be operated to close these drains to contain a chemical release?
  • If a storm water outfall discharges to a body of water, do your department members have the means to contain the spill at that point?
  • What exposures, such as recreational areas, marine traffic, or fresh water intakes, could be affected?
  • Who would first responders notify about a release of a chemical from a storm drain into a body of water?
  • Could they contact these individuals at night or on weekends and holidays?

Additional considerations for the safety of first responders at fixed facilities include knowing that although first-arriving companies often will be faced with conducting a size-up of the incident along with possible considerations for rescue and efforts to contain the spread of a chemical release, they likely will be equipped with little more than structural firefighter protective clothing that provides limited protection from harmful vapors and liquids. They can easily overstep these limitations and quickly become part of the problem.

The safety of first responders can be further compromised by representatives of fixed facilities who possess a “time-is-money” mentality. Those who succumb to this mindset may rush to make uninformed decisions or take careless steps they’ll later regret.

Do you know . . . ?

Although some fixed facilities have the potential for serious consequences because of service interruptions, such as water treatment plants, the expense of these interruptions for most is usually nothing more than an inconvenience. When challenged, first responders should always remember, “An inconvenience is temporary. Dead is forever.”


In incidents involving the release of a hazardous material, representatives from fixed facilities may be able assist in resolving the situation. This assistance can take the form of products that can be used to contain or neutralize spills of hazardous materials, technical expertise, and even hazardous materials response teams.

For example, facilities that manufacture or use soda ash likely would be able to deliver large amounts of this material to first responders attempting to neutralize a spill of hydrochloric acid. Of course, prior to requesting any material resource such as this from a fixed facility, first responders should know in advance who will pay the bill should a charge incur.

Individuals from fixed facilities with a technical background may be able to provide members of local hazardous materials teams with detailed guidance on how to safely manage an incident. This is especially true of facilities that manufacture a product; their expertise can include knowledge of potential chemical reactions and selection of chemical protective clothing for the materials involved. This same assistance may also be available to first responders attempting to mitigate an incident away from a facility, as may be the case during a highway or rail transportation incident.

Employees of fixed facilities assigned to in-house hazardous materials response teams may be trained to a technician or specialist level as defined by the OSHA HAZWOPER standard (29 CFR 1910.120). With this training, they may be able to serve with the responders as members of entry teams. In addition to knowing the layout of their facility, these employees can also instruct first responders on how to properly use electronic controls or manually operate valves to stop or control a release.

As with technical expertise discussed earlier, members of these hazardous materials response teams may be available to assist with incidents at other facilities or transportation emergencies that occur offsite. However, keep in mind that training for personnel from fixed facilities may be limited to those hazards they are likely to encounter in-house. For example, hazardous materials technicians from facilities that deal strictly with rail tank cars may have little experience or training relative to highway cargo tanks. Another limitation is that some teams may be prevented from responding beyond the boundaries of their facility because of concerns of civil liability resulting from their actions as well as restrictions in labor union contracts.

Do you know . . . ?

  • Do you know how to contact fixed facility representatives in your community for material resources or technical expertise?
  • Do any of these facilities have their own hazardous materials response team?
  • Is this team available to respond to incidents off-site? If so, are there any legal implications for doing so? Will there be a charge for the use of this team? Will there be a charge for material resources provided by the facility? If so, who gets the bill?

• • •

A response to an accidental release of hazardous materials at a fixed facility should never be a chance encounter but rather one that allows first responders to put into practice the results of their planning and training in preparation for such an event. Advance knowledge of fixed facility hazards and the capabilities and limitations of personnel who work at these sites is one of the best ways to ensure that responders stay safe.


1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Fact Sheet: Emergency Planning and Community-Right-to-Know Act of 1986.” August 1994,

2. National Fire Protection Association 704, Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response, (2001 ed.), Section 1.1.

3. 29 CFR 1910.1200 (g)(8).

4. 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(4) and (b)(4)(ii).

STEVEN M. DE LISI, a 26-year veteran of the fire service, is deputy chief of the Virginia Air National Guard Fire Rescue at the Richmond International Airport. He is a hazardous materials specialist, chairman of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association’s Hazardous Materials Committee, an adjunct instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, and a former member of the National Fire Protection Association committee on hazardous materials protective clothing. De Lisi began his career in hazardous materials response in 1982 as a member the Newport News (VA) Fire Department’s haz mat team and served as a hazardous materials officer with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, providing on-scene assistance to first responders involved with haz-mat incidents in an area that included more than 20 local jurisdictions. De Lisi has a bachelor’s degree in public administration and a master’s degree in public safety leadership.

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