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Firefighting and hazardous materials responses have much in common when it comes to tactical approaches, and this is especially true as far as ventilation is concerned. The importance of ventilating a building for fire attack is a high priority for firefighters advancing hoselines and firefighters involved in search and rescue. Not only does effective ventilation rapidly evacuate building spaces of heat and fire gases, it greatly aids in better vision along with the speed of response. It is simple: ventilation, when completed correctly and synchronously, saves lives.
The same can be said for ventilation when used in hazmat response as a tactical tool. Responders can effectively change a hostile environment, or one that is flammable, toxic, corrosive, or even one with poor vision, into one that is safe and far less risky. Working in obscured vision or in vapor clouds present immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) conditions and should be avoided at all times.
Perhaps the best way to do all of this is to use positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) through the use of blowers. Precautions for using blowers require that they be set up in safe outside positions in order to blow fresh air into a contaminated building, or even into the back of a highway trailer that has experienced a chemical spill. This can all be easily completed by trained and competent crews who may only be hazmat operations-trained personnel.
Hazwoper, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations that set the safety practices at hazmat emergencies, mandates that an incident commander (IC) characterize an atmosphere at all hazmat events. Ventilating an unsecured area does not relieve the IC of this responsibility, but it does make it safer for responders who enter the area. Rather than allow responders to enter, and stay in, potentially flammable and toxic environments, even with monitoring instruments, still amounts to an encounter not too different from Russian Roulette. There are just too many variables that can all add up to extreme risk when these environments are encountered.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) selection can also be precarious when simultaneously dealing with flammable, toxic and corrosive atmospheres. Which garment should be selected with those hazards present? It is a difficult call at any such incident, but one that is much less complicated if the dangerous atmosphere is eliminated through ventilation measures.
Ventilation of an unwanted atmosphere will not make the source of the problem go away, nor will it complete the cleanup activities that may be required to mitigate the emergency. Ventilation will, however, make the atmosphere far more visible for the responders, safer to work in and, far less dangerous. Entry personnel still must be properly protected, to include their breathing routes along with their skin from contact hazards. Entry personnel will still need to monitor the atmosphere on all entries to verify the atmosphere is safe for work activities. As a result of these atmospheric concerns, ventilation has become an important hazmat response risk-management consideration.
Ventilation for hazmat response is not a panacea and there are precautions that must be considered: