HazMat IQ: Simplifying Complex Chemistry for Emergency Responders

Hazardous materials responders across the country have a new way to look at hazmat chemistry: the "HazMat IQ" system, which lets responders see immediate application of the material to their response world. The HazMat IQ system simplifies complex chemistry concepts into "need-to-know" essentials that can easily be used in the field in concert with laminated sheets called "Smart Charts."

Created by two experienced fire and hazmat responders, Cris Aguirre and Joe Gorman, the HazMat IQ system has proven effective on hazmat emergencies. The learning concept is built around empowering a responder to understand how chemistry information can be used to think through tactical decision making. In essence, the system does not teach what to think, but how to think and then how to act on one's own. In just one class session, responders are taught how to use the system and how to think using the Smart Charts

Learning the basic chemistry concepts and how to use the Smart Charts does not take long. In less than a half-day, most students can grasp this system that shows them both how to size-up the chemical and physical properties of a hazardous material, along with properly selecting personal protective equipment (PPE) and the appropriate air monitoring instruments (meters) to measure the material that has been released. The system starts out with the initial information from a simple dispatch. Frequently, from the initial information, responders get the chemical identity through a chemical name or an identification number, then they must make an initial decision based on the chemical nomenclature.

The first decision is whether the released material is an "Above-the-Line" or a "Below-the-Line" chemical. This decision is based on background chemistry information that is discussed in the morning classroom setting. Based on their determination as to the chemical and physical hazards of the released material, they should be able to complete this initial size-up in 20 seconds or less. Then, they are on their way to Step 2. Step 2 is the response phase and within two minutes students should be able to verify their own size-up from Step 1. This is a critical step because they may have been errant in their initial size-up. Step 2 verifies, and may even correct, the size-up step through research data bases or books. This step also centers on which PPE to select in respect to the released material along with the meters that are needed to measure its airborne concentrations.

Upon arrival, several minutes later, personnel should be well prepared to go to work. Step 3 has responders round up the equipment that has been identified, check it over for readiness and prepare for Step 4, the entry into the "hot zone" or release area. Responders are also taught to identify their mission in order to prioritize their actions and conduct a risk-benefit analysis. Their mission may be a quick in-and-out for a possible line-of-sight rescue situation or it may involve more deliberate actions such as shutting off valves, leak sealing or spill confinement. (For a brief overview of the HazMat IQ system, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14Cm0cakExk.)

To best depict HazMat IQ in action, consider the following spill scenario: First responders are on the scene of a train versus a tractor-trailer in which the collision ripped the trailer in half and threw numerous 55-gallon drums out of the trailer. They report damaged steel drums on the ground around the wreckage with clear liquid leaking from several drums. It is 9 A.M. on a bright, sunny and cold day (10 degrees Fahrenheit) in early winter and no one was hurt when the truck crossed the path of the slow-moving train. Both the train and the truck stopped a short distance from the collision site and called for emergency services.

The firefighters arrive a short time later, set up site control and immediately set their hazmat action plan into effect. They have not entered the release area, but have called you, the hazmat response team, to take care of the release. This is where the Smart Charts are used to initiate the system, beginning with Step 1.

On the cell phone, you find out that the firefighters see a red placard with an identification number on the trailer of the truck. They tell you that it is a "flammable" and the number is "1040." You look it up in the 2008 Department of Transportation (DOT) Emergency Response Guide (ERG) and find that the release involves "ethylene oxide." First step: Is "ethylene" a chemical name that is below the line? Is it listed in the blue section? Is it listed in the alphabetical list of chemicals? From the charts, the answer to all of the questions is no, so it is an "Above-the-Line" chemical.

From the Step 1 size-up, an above-the-line chemical most likely has many of the chemical and physical qualities of the list in the red box on the Smart Charts. Because of its name, you know that it is most likely a liquid or gas, it may be flammable, so it may have a flash point, a lower-explosive-limit, an upper-explosive-limit, a corresponding flammable range, and a possible ionization potential. Red-box chemicals may also turn pH paper red, and may require Level B clothing or structural fire protective clothing (SFPC)/turnouts, or even Level A, depending on the situation and circumstances. Above-the-line chemicals or compounds also assist you in setting up your initial isolation distances. Because the released material may be a liquid, you can isolate for 150 feet in all directions. If vapors or gases are present, you can isolate initially for 300 feet.

Your initial assessment of ethylene oxide also leads you to the Smart Charts with the red box, above-the-line information to select the appropriate monitors. In the "flammable clues" information box you look for the first word "ethylene" and find that it is not listed, but "eth" is listed. According to the chart, this means that this compound is a flammable material. Under the "name clues" box you find that a compound that ends in "oxide" is an ether type of compound and its general hazards are "flammable, toxic and (it) can possibly form peroxides." The meters that can be used to detect the presence of ethylene oxide are listed as a temperature gun, combustible gas indicators (CGIs), photoionization detectors (PIDs), flame ionization detectors (FIDs), colorimetric tubes or chips and KI paper (potassium iodide paper can indicate the formation of peroxides).

Information available from the Smart Charts also assists you with what PPE to wear to handle this situation. What is listed for ethers are Level B, for situations below 1% of the lower explosive limit (LEL), or even turnouts below 10% LEL. Level A is also an option if the atmosphere is not flammable. As always, final PPE selection depends on the physical environment and the work mission requirements.

Your use of the Smart Charts has provided you with an initial assessment and perhaps a course of action. At this point, you know that ethylene oxide is an above-the-line chemical with red-box hazards. From the Smart Charts, it is also a "Red 11" chemical, which has the physical qualities of a flammable liquid or gas, with a toxic potential and may require Level A, Level B or turnouts, depending on the situation. But your initial training also taught that you need to research this chemical compound to verify the Smart Charts information and learn more about the chemical and physical hazards of ethylene oxide. That's the simplicity of the HazMat IQ system. It simply looks at the need-to-know chemistry and assists responders with selecting the appropriate PPE and meters through the use of Smart Charts. Additionally, the one-day session also teaches responders how to handle unknown releases along with numerous other known hazard classes and compounds.

DAVID F. PETERSON is a lieutenant in the Madison, WI, Fire Department, where he is the lead fire and hazmat training officer. He is a 30-year veteran firefighter and hazmat team responder. Peterson is a member of the Wisconsin FLAME Group LLC and writes and instructs for HazMat IQ LLC. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University and is enrolled in the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Peterson also operates www.hazmatpetie.com, a hazmat response training website. Please send your comments and questions to him at www.hazmatpetie.com or dcnkm@charter.net.