Decontamination Best Practices

The main purpose of decontamination at a hazardous materials emergency is to limit the spread of contaminants from the release area, or "hot zone," to include the cleaning of responders and their equipment. Decon even includes cleaning contaminated...


The main purpose of decontamination at a hazardous materials emergency is to limit the spread of contaminants from the release area, or "hot zone," to include the cleaning of responders and their equipment. Decon even includes cleaning contaminated victims from a wide spectrum of events, such as...


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The main purpose of decontamination at a hazardous materials emergency is to limit the spread of contaminants from the release area, or "hot zone," to include the cleaning of responders and their equipment. Decon even includes cleaning contaminated victims from a wide spectrum of events, such as industrial emergencies, along with mass-casualty incidents, whether accidental or intended. Almost always, decon is conducted as an afterthought or on the back end of an incident. In other words, decon is most likely carried out after all the excitement is over and done with and the emergency phase is wrapping up.

Because decon is conducted in the declining stages of an incident, it may sometimes be dismissed as not an integral and important part of a quality response. A good example of this mindset can be observed at numerous hazmat exercises. Frequently, responders focus on the decision-making and task completion of the exercise and decon becomes something that is done to merely complete the event. Then, the decon personnel doff their personal protective equipment (PPE), the decon corridor is torn down, the contaminated water in the decon kiddie pools is dumped and they go home.

It shouldn't be this way. Proper and effective decontamination should occur at all hazmat events and responders should be vigilant in carrying out good decon operations, even at exercises. Consequently, the intention of this column is to point out how responders can employ decontamination best practices.

The Mundane Is Important

Decontamination is a very mundane assignment and it is just not very "sexy"! In fact, it can be downright boring. There are long periods of inactivity and short periods of actual work. But, it is nevertheless very important because everything needs to be properly cleaned before it leaves the decontamination corridor. This we all know. Yet, it is difficult to be enthusiastic when the limelight is elsewhere. After all, the excitement is in the "hot zone" and not upwind in the "warm zone." Because decon is anti-climactic, common pitfalls can be observed from incidents across the country such as:

  • Overusing structural fire protective clothing (SFPC) as decon worker apparel. SFPC is not designed for hazmat events, so why is it used for decon activities? The answer is because it is habit, it is easily available and it is easy to don. The downside is the contamination, or cross-contamination, issue when SFPC is used to decontaminate contaminated personnel. There is a dangerous assumption that the SFPC remains clean afterwards. Maybe SFPC is allowed for decon worker apparel because "we are just using it for decon."
  • Overlooking contaminated spray and runoff from decontamination. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does pardon decontamination runoff in times of emergency when lives are in peril, but responders must try to retain contaminated water runoff as soon as possible. This pardon does not apply to the everyday decon activities that should be prudently completed at hazmat events. Maybe a quick, down-and-dirty decon is acceptable because "it is just a splash of water we are using that can't hurt anything, even if we just allow it to go into the environment."
  • The over-the-top practice of dumping decon pools indiscriminately after the emergency. A countless number of events have seen the wastewater in decon pools merely dumped into the environment or storm sewers without being properly checked. Why is this practice allowed? Maybe this happens because "it is how it is done after training sessions."

From a best-practices standpoint, all of the above can be corrected by taking the task of decontamination seriously, following standard operating guidelines (SOGs) strictly and avoiding cutting corners. Specifically, decon workers should be dressed appropriately in Level A, B or C apparel, depending on the contaminant, the entry team's level of protection and even a consideration of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1991 or 1992 approved attire. Additionally, decon activities should be conducted in a decon corridor per SOGs with disposable plastic tarps and wastewater basins for runoff control. Lastly, before wastewater is handled, environmental authorities should be consulted and wastewater should be tested and disposed of through licensed contractors.

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