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HazMat response is one of the most difficult types of emergencies faced by fire crews as hazards are often invisible and scientific advice may be hard to come by.

HazMat emergencies are typical ‘hurry up and wait’ scenarios, where personnel will proceed to the incident quickly under lights and bells and then wait until sufficient information is gathered before exposing crews to a variety the hazards associate with a HazMat emergency. To reduce the likelihood of fatalities and injuries to your firefighters, you must equip them with an understanding of their local ‘typical’ HazMat emergencies. This includes looking at local industries and deciding what HazMat incidents are most likely to occur within the local area. By informing your fire crews of the typical HazMat emergencies that may occur and by training them in the types of incidents that may arise, your personnel will be able to respond safely and professionally to any HazMat incident.

Types of incidents

Hazard identification is part of the daily emergency response activities of fire crews worldwide. We are used to going to spilt petrol, or the occasional more dangerous chemical. However, HazMat emergencies can present real dangers to fire crews, especially when life hazards are involved. Whilst life hazards are the most concerning, exposures may include nearby buildings, structures and workplaces and the personnel that occupy such buildings.  So, when completing your size-up consider at least:

  • What nearby buildings, facilities and homes may be affected?
  • What is the ‘worst case’ scenario?
  • What is the ‘best case ‘ scenario?
  • What precautions must your fire crews take to ensure their own health and safety?

However, HazMat incidents are extremely difficult to size-up as often the incident commander has little operational experience with the specific type of chemical concerned. HazMat incidents are best characterised as ‘the unknown’ and must be respected and treated as such. Often fire crews respond to a variety of incidents involving HazMat emergencies; however fire crews may not consider the specific hazards and risks that HazMat emergencies may cause.

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A HazMat Example

At 0900 hours you are responding to an unconscious worker with liquid spilt all over him as a result of a 44 gallon drum overturning. You arrive at the scene to find a man in his 40s who appears to be unconscious. What do you do and what hazards do you consider?

What caused the worker to collapse? What hazards could be within the immediate area? Do you have to consider evacuation? What hazards may affect your firefighting crew? Should you proceed with a ‘snatch rescue’ without identifying the chemical? What about the casualty? Should you do anything before identifying the chemical? The situation described above is uncommon; however in my experience I have never in my career encountered a simulated situation that has caused more indecision and more argument. Many fire crews would wait until further information is received, however many others would complete a ‘snatch rescue’ as this would be safe in 90% of occurrences. So, what do you do?

This is an example of how HazMat emergencies can be presented to fire crews outside of a typical and normal ‘HazMat emergency’. If you are responding to a HazMat emergency, do all crew have the same view, or a different view? Do all crew members appreciate the responsibility that is incumbent upon the incident commander? Do all crew members start to consider the hazards of the scenario or emergency en-route?

Many fire crews would wait until further information is received, however many others would complete a ‘snatch rescue’ as this would be safe in 90% of occurrences.

In emergency callouts such as this, if fire crews are not well trained in what the consequences of an incorrect response are, they may be at risk of an injury or fatality. The example above is a dangerous situation that may cause crews to be at risk of serious injury if normal standard operating procedures are not followed. So, let us consider the above example; what hazards may be present and what control measures should be considered.

Typical hazards for the above scenario include, but are not limited to:

Chemical composition

What type of chemical could this be? What would the potential consequence be? What is the worst case scenario? All of these situations demand immediate and specific controls. But what is your decision?

Exposures

What exposures are present in this scenario? Are buildings or personnel affected? What actions can we take to limit the damage? What can we do to limit the number of people affected by this emergency? The example should illustrate to those of us that are well trained in incident leadership that the situation should be ‘sized-up’ and appropriate control measures should be utilised based on the emergency at hand. Realistically we should consider several active control measures for each of the hazards outlined above. Consider the following to be the absolute minimum that should be implemented prior to allowing any firefighter to attempt a rescue of the injured person:

Gas Test

A gas test should be performed across the area to detect any chemicals that are IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health).

The Chemical

The UN Number, HAZCHEM Code and the chemical description should be considered before any rescue attempt is made. This is to determine what the chemical is, what damage could occur and what the hazards are to fire crews.

Containment Area

What can we do to contain the situation? How far out should we barricade? What can we do to limit the spread of this chemical?

Local Authorities

How can we utilise local authorities, such as the police, ambulance and local council to limit the spread of this emergency and keep the local community informed about the progress of this emergency.
While many firefighters may consider the control measures above, taking responsibility for the actions that you take as a crew leader is a different matter. The safety of our firefighters is our number one priority, so do not let a chemical spill determine the safety of front-line personnel.

HazMat and local knowledge

Fire crews may receive an emergency call for a HazMat emergency and find themselves at a site with a multitude of hazards to consider and with no real technical knowledge of the site, the chemical itself or the surroundings.

Wherever possible, on arrival seek out local knowledge and help as soon as practicable to assist in your size-up. Track down local workers who have knowledge about the specific hazards that may be present before any action is undertaken.

Question the local people about at least the following:

  • What are the hazards associated with this chemical?
  • How long has the person been unconscious for?
  • Has a gas test been completed of the area and what were the results?
  • Could the chemical be affected by wind?
  • What do you think has caused this incident?
  • What should we consider prior to rescue?

The answers to these questions will often provide you with valuable information about the emergency and may cause you to either complete a rescue or wait until the conditions within the area of the incident have been made safer.

Localised and specific HazMat training

Fire crews are experienced in utilising SCBA and atmospheric monitoring equipment at fires and incidents, however do fire crews understand what local HazMat emergencies could present within their local area?

Fire crews will often have limited experience in rescuing personnel from HazMat incidents, as they occur rarely. However, when was the last time that your personnel completed HazMat drills that focussed on your local area and industry? The truth is that many urban fire brigades do not complete such drills. They believe that industry does not want them within their workplaces. My experience is that nothing could be farther from the truth. Often, personnel in industry feel ‘lost’ when it comes to HazMat emergencies and most are only too happy to have their local fire brigade come and complete a rescue drill or HazMat scenario.

We need to train in environments that are as realistic as possible. Whenever possible involve your local industry and train your firefighters in the types of rescue that are most realistic within your response area.

After instructing HazMat Response and rescue for over five years, I often hear prospective clients who want advice and assistance from their local fire brigade and will only be too happy to include you in their drills and simulations. By involving your local industries in emergency preparation, you will feel more comfortable with this challenging and often dangerous type of HazMat Response.

Summary

HazMat Incidents are challenging incidents as they often involve the unkown. For this reason, fire crews needs to practise the ‘possible’ rather than just the ‘norm’ to ensure that they are ready to encounter the types of emergencies that are possible within their local area. For fire crews to attend HazMat Incidents, they must ensure that they understand the local industry and the types of HazMat incidents that may occur.

Article first appeared in Asia Pacific Fire

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