BY DAVID F. PETERSON
Haz-mat response is dangerous, especially for the personnel who don the Level A all-encapsulating response suits and enter and work in the hot zones. In addition to the hazards at the scene such as flammability, corrosivity, and toxicity, there are other hazards such as decreased vision and the risks of falls, slips, and trips. On top of all of this, the wearers of chemical suits face other difficulties that can increase their risk of injury, especially if they do not know how to correct the problems. You should know and practice in-suit survival techniques because these trouble-shooting actions may save your life.
In-suit emergencies are rare, but they can occur. Should you encounter such an emergency, being able to recognize the potential types of problems and how to appropriately respond to them will help you to remain calm, control air consumption, think clearly, be creative in problem solving, and stay alive.
With all of the above as goals, some potential problems while working in chemical suits that need to be discussed include the following: self-contained breathing appa- ratus (SCBA) failure, compromised suit integrity, physical illness or injury, entrapment or immersion, contamination (internal and external), and fire.
The SCBA is the prime respiratory protection device for Level A protection that firefighters and haz-mat responders usually are very skilled and adept at operating. Still, wearers of Level A suits should practice scenarios in which airflow is interrupted and how to appropriately correct the situation. Since the SCBA is inside the suit, you will have to pull your arms out of the suit’s sleeves to respond to any SCBA malfunction. That’s the reason many Level A suits are of the bat-wing design. Within the suit, you can access the regulator or the air bottle if needed. You can also remove the regulator from the facepiece if necessary. This action may be warranted if there is no airflow because of a regulator malfunction or if the air supply has been depleted. In these situations, you must remain calm and realize that you actually have several minutes’ worth of air within the suit, enough to enable you to escape and survive. The exhaled air from your open-system SCBA is within the suit. Although exhaled air is approximately 16 percent oxygen and 5 percent carbon dioxide, and also very warm and moist, it should be adequate in an emergency.
As far as a low-air emergency is concerned, immediately exit the hot zone with your partners anytime a low-air warning device has been activated. Exit time combined with decontamination activities may add up to your running out of air within the suit. Even though a low-air problem should rarely occur because of the safety and entry team officers’ monitoring of air supplies and time of entry, it can still happen as a result of ill-fitting facepiece seals, excessive air consumption, and even accidental dislodging of the facepiece. To avoid low-air problems, check your air supply often by observing the pressure on the chest air gauge. Some haz-mat teams have their entry or safety officer provide time updates every five minutes to remind entry personnel of how long they have been in the hot zone. You may also practice using a knife to exit a Level A suit, just in case it should ever become necessary to do so. Many teams carry exit knives inside the suit just in case.
Since most haz-mat teams use six-minute SCBAs for Level A entries, up to 40 minutes of air consumption may be allowable. How-ever, because Level A activities cause personnel to consume more air, many teams have set a maximum time of 20 minutes for Level A personnel. It is prudent to follow this safety benchmark combined with accepted practices. A breakdown of the 20-minute maximum entry time is as follows: the time of entry from the warm zone to the work area, the exit time from that same work area, and the time to adequately decontaminate the responders. The remainder of the time is available worktime for entry personnel. Other caveats to the maximum air worktime are heat and humidity. If environmental factors are a concern, on-air work times need to be decreased accordingly.
Practice SCBA malfunctions and responding to the problem within the suit, including pulling your arms out of the suit and accessing the regulator. Practice also activating the purge/bypass valve and the mainline valve and disconnecting the regulator from the facepiece. Additionally, if the regulator totally malfunctions, you should know how to disconnect the high-pressure hoseline from the air bottle and to access air straight from the cylinder. In this procedure, only slightly crack the air bottle valve and breathe enough air for the moment. Shut the valve, as you continue to exit quickly.
Avoid excessive air pressure in the suit. Not only will it overinflate the suit and make it difficult to move, but it may also rupture the suit. In a 1991 training scenario in Louisville, Kentucky, a Level A suit violently ruptured when a responder simulating a dislodged facepiece overpressurized the suit. The suit burst rapidly; the air supply could not be shut off quickly. Even though the failed suit had only one exhaust valve, this incident led to the changes in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1991, Standard for Vapor Protective Suits for Hazardous Chemical Emergencies, which requires that Level A suits have exhaust valves adequate enough to avoid overpressurization. Obviously, an overpressurized suit and subsequent suit failure may severely compromise a responder’s health and safety. It is not inconceivable that the dislodging of a facepiece could occur from a responder’s falling, being struck by a falling object or projectile, or even colliding with an object. To be sure, these are extreme cases that may never happen, but you need to be prepared for any situation.
COMPROMISED SUIT INTEGRITY
Be aware of the fact that Level A suits are not indestructible. Some responders may think they are invincible because they are clad in a Level A suit. This belief is erroneous and unsafe. In fact, Level A suits do rip and tear not only at seams but in other areas. Because of this reality, you must also be prepared to respond to a compromised suit situation.
If the faceshield becomes compromised from cracks or from being shattered or if the suit becomes torn, the first thing to remember is to remain calm. Most likely, your respiratory protection is still intact and your breathing will remain protected. Calmly cover the breached area with your gloved hand, notify your partner, and then exit quickly. Your partner should notify your entry team officer of the situation and your actions. If the breach is too large to cover with your hand, you may need to use both hands or even curl and roll the suit’s fabric to assist in sealing the opening. If the suit’s sleeve is torn, consider removing your arm and completely sealing the sleeve with the other hand. Consider also using duct tape or chemical tape around your exterior gloves to seal an opening or secure the rolled-up suit material. Much of the guidance here is common sense, but the fact remains that it should be practiced in training scenarios.
The breach or physical opening of a chemical suit is a severe emergency that demands immediate attention. Essentially, the microclimate you once had is compromised. If the atmosphere is contaminated with a deadly “kill-me-now” chemical, this may be a life-or-death struggle. Consider an incident that took place in Benicia, California, in August 1983. The suits and facepieces of several haz-mat team members were immediately compromised on entering an atmosphere of dimethyl-amine. At this incident, a spill from a railcar emitted large amounts of vapor, and responders literally had their suits disintegrate on entry. Jeffrey Stull, an international personal protective clothing specialist, stated in Fire Engineering (September 1987): “They came away with suits that bore cracked or shattered facepieces and failed seams, wearing fire boots on which the heels had become unglued from the soles.” The chemical acted as a solvent and degraded the suit materials and adhesives. Fortunately, the responders fully recovered from their exposures, but this incident reinforces the fact that all responders need to be prepared for the unexpected at all haz-mat emergencies.
The exhaust valves on a Level A suit may malfunction. Occasionally, an exhaust valve may not open to relieve the excess pressure inside the suit. It would be rare for all of the multiple valves on a suit to malfunction, but responders should know that they could activate the valve from inside the suit by pulling on the center of the valve, which will relieve the pressure. This may have to be done if the suit begins to overpressurize and the profile becomes so large that it becomes more difficult to move. A large profile also is more dangerous; it becomes easier to knock items off shelves in laboratories or other high-hazard occupancies. If, on the other hand, the exhaust valve will not close, cover the valve with a hand from outside the suit and then exit with your buddy.
PHYSICAL ILLNESS OR INJURY
A more conceivable problem is that you may become ill while inside an encapsulating suit. You may vomit inside the facepiece. In this case, immediately remove the regulator from the facepiece and clean out the vomit. To do this, you would have to quickly remove your hand from a sleeve.
Claustrophobia is another physical problem that you may encounter. You probably would know if you are prone to this ailment before you don an SCBA; sometimes, however, especially in haz-mat or confined-space operations, claustrophobia can appear suddenly. In these cases, avoid panic, grab your partner, and exit quickly. Exiting quickly after the suit has been decontaminated is also important. For this reason, you should know where zippers are located in case you need to self-doff your suit.
Other physical illnesses that can suddenly occur while wearing an all-encapsulating suit include heart attacks, diabetic complications, and heat stress. In these circumstances, the best course of action would be to notify your partner or the entry team leader immediately and try to exit as soon as possible. If necessary, these personnel can activate the backup safety team for rescue purposes. If a responder becomes unconscious, he must immediately be removed from the hazard area and extricated from the suit without delay. In most cases, life-saving measures would have to be employed by adequately protected responders before the victim is decontaminated. Fortunately, there have been very few documented cases of these types of situations in the haz-mat response community, especially with on-scene medical monitoring, annual medical monitoring, and physical fitness programs. However, they can occur.
Heat-related illnesses have been the most common type of physical distress afflicting haz-mat personnel. It is very easy to become overheated in a Level A suit, even on a relatively cool day, because of the sauna type of microclimate inside the suit. Some preventive measures include adequate water intake and body-cooling equipment. Still, rapid loss of body fluid in combination with extreme weather conditions can surprise even the most seasoned responder with heat-stress symptoms. In one incident for which I had suited up, two fellow haz-mat responders were transported to the hospital for severe heat stress symptoms after responding to a formaldehyde spill. We all entered the scene in Level A suits; the temperature was in the 90°F to 95°F range, and the humidity was high.
Some responders might argue that PASS devices are not needed on SCBAs used for haz-mat response. One good reason for using them, however, is to ensure the backup team’s speed and efficiency in responding to rescue efforts, such as in the case where a trapped or incapacitated entry team needs to be rescued. If the initial entry team is unconscious or pinned so the members cannot communicate with the responders outside of the hazard area, the backup team may have to be activated. The only means by which the backup team may be able to locate the trapped team might be activated PASS device alarms. Granted, the sound of an activated PASS device is muffled inside a Level A suit. but it, nevertheless, can assist in rescue efforts.
ENTRAPMENT OR IMMERSION
You may become trapped in a hostile environment or fall into a vat or a pool. Entrap-ment may occur at a train derailment, for instance, while sizing up the wreckage. It is feasible that responders crawling under stacked railcars to better observe the valves of wrecked cars might become entrapped when the cars adjust themselves, possibly from an imbalance caused by leaking materials. You may have to resort to extreme measures to evacuate. One approach may be to use a reduced profile to exit; this would entail loosening the SCBA shoulder straps and taking off the right shoulder strap. Rotate the SCBA so that the air bottle is on your left hip and the left shoulder strap is in the chest area. You would have to do all of this while within the suit. With the reduced profile, you would be able to move through much narrower areas. Practice the reduced profile method before you need it.
Haz-mat facilities often have immersion hazards such as open vats or chemical pools. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to anticipate a potential immersion hazard. If you should fall into a chemical container, remember that Level A suits will float. The suit seals out the chemical and will protect you for some time; it may be possible for you to right yourself and self-rescue. The New York City haz-mat response team has experimented extensively with the Level A immersion concept and has found these situations to be very manageable. The team researched this area because of the significant number of shipping ports, docks, and ships in its response area.
Entrapment and immersion hazards also highlight the need for site safety plans. Before entering sites with these types of hazards, develop a plan and communicate that plan to all entry personnel. Personnel also need to know the location of the safe refuge area in case of an unforeseen problem. Be sure the backup team is aware of this plan should it be called into action.
Entrapment also may present sight and communication problems. If the entrapment is prolonged, radio and flashlight batteries may expire. For this reason, carry spare batteries inside the suit. Consider carrying at least two forms of artificial light and even dual-filament flashlights. Obviously, every responder should use an external flashlight. Cyalume sticks can also be used to mark entry points and aid in exiting an area.
All entry personnel should strive to avoid contamination at all times. This entails walk- ing around chemical puddles or product discharges, staying out of vapor clouds unless it absolutely cannot be avoided, and removing chemical contamination as soon as possible. Additionally, avoid kneeling or crawling in suits, which may cause abrasions in the suit material. Another concept that has been employed to prevent or reduce the suit’s contamination is to use a sacrificial layer between the chemical and the responder. For instance, less product will contact the suit if a transparent sheet of plastic or visqueen is used to shield the responder at a chemical discharge. The responder may even reach around the plastic to work, avoiding contaminating the front of the suit. You can also deflect discharges with shovels, thereby avoiding suit contamination.
From time to time, look for signs of chemical breakthrough on the material inside the suit. Many suits have a white interior, which will enable you to detect discoloration; most parts of the suit can be viewed by manipulating the suit. Know each garment’s permeation times in respect to the chemical hazards on-scene. If contamination has occurred and the permeation time is nearing, exit, and undergo decontamination.
Use the proper type of personal protective equipment when responding to haz-mat in-cidents, especially for cryogenic or cold hazards. Respond to liquefied gases such as nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and others with cryogenic protective clothing. Contact with cryogenics will immediately cause many materials to crack, freeze, or become brittle, as might compressed, liquefied gases such as propane, anhydrous ammonia, and chlorine. Although cryogenic suits, gloves, aprons, and boots are available, few haz-mat response teams stock them and may even resort to the questionable practice of using firefighter structural clothing to respond to cryogenic releases.
Fire presents a critical hazard for responders in Level A suits. Most protective clothing materials used for Level A suits are not designed for fire exposure. For this reason, and to be in compliance with NFPA 1991, vapor protective chemical suits have to pass a flame exposure test. Most 1991 suits can pass the flame test only by applying an overgarment or flash cover over the chemical suit. Some suits can pass the 1991 test without an overcover because of some type of flame-resistant substrate such as NomexT. You must consider the flammability potential at every scene and strive to adequately protect yourself and all personnel in case of a flash fire. Other adjuncts include carrying appropriate fire extinguishers, monitoring instruments, and vapor suppression applications into the hazard area and wearing NomexT coveralls, hoods, and gloves. Include the fire hazard information in the site safety plan.
The only documented death of a haz-mat responder in a Level A suit occurred in Shreveport, Louisiana, in September 1984. An unexpected explosion of an ammonia atmosphere occurred after a two-person entry team entered a large cold-storage room. One responder suffered burns over 90 percent of his body and succumbed to his injuries approximately six hours later. The other responder self-rescued and survived; he suffered burns over 40 percent of his body. The explosion and fire caused the Level A butyl rubber suits to literally melt off the responders’ bodies.
Even though these in-suit emergencies are rare, haz-mat responders must be prepared. It may mean the difference between life and death.
Make sure that you have developed-and that your personnel understand and follow-standard operating guidelines. Add to your site safety plans exit routes, safe refuge locations, and site hazards and their locations. Be sure that all of these concepts are thoroughly communicated to all team personnel and are practiced regularly. They should be second nature for all responders; they could increase responder survivability should there be an in-suit emergency.
Thanks to Rick Emery of Emery and Associates for his assistance in writing this article.
DAVID F. PETERSON, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutenant with the Madison (WI) Fire Department and the operations and training coordinator for the Regional Level A Haz-Mat Response Team. He is the owner of Americhem Safety & Environmental, LLC, a haz-mat training and consulting firm in Janesville, Wisconsin. He is also an IAFF Master Trainer, an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy and the Emergency Management Institute, and an FDIC presenter. He is a member of the NFPA Classification and Properties of Hazardous Chemical Data Committee and the founder and past president of the Wisconsin Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, Inc.