Hazmat Response in the Heartland

Most of the recent firefighter deaths in the United States involving hazardous materials occurred in the nation's heartland. Incidents in rural places like Burnside, IL, population 242; Albert City, IA, population 709; and the unincorporated Ghent, WV, have resulted in the deaths of firefighters and other emergency responders. Two firefighters died in Burnside and two in Albert City. In Ghent, a firefighter, an EMT and a building inspector died along with a civilian.

Over the years, hazmat incidents that resulted in large numbers of firefighters and civilians being killed and injured also occurred in rural areas. In Waverly, TN, population 4,028 (fewer in 1978), 16 people were killed, including the town's fire chief, police chief and five firefighters; in Kingman, AZ, population 27,000 (less in 1973), 11 firefighters and one civilian died. Other hazmat incidents occurred in rural America that resulted in catastrophic property loss, but did not cause loss of life because of the prudent actions of emergency response personnel and perhaps a bit of luck.

Crescent City, IL, population 631, had a major train derailment in 1970 with several BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions) that resulted in injuries, but no deaths. An Illinois state trooper who responded to the incident and was familiar with propane and its hazards moved firefighters out of harm's way prior to the rail tank cars exploding, which likely saved their lives.

Weyauwega, WI, population 1,806, had a major train derailment and fire in 1996, but no one was killed or injured, although the entire community, including a nursing home, was evacuated for 21 days. This incident scene was similar to the Waverly, TN, disaster and the fire chief of Weyauwega said it was the lessons learned from the Waverly incident that caused them to take the precautions they did, including evacuating the entire community.

All of the incidents mentioned involved the same type of hazardous materials - flammable liquefied petroleum (hydrocarbon) gases. These gases included propane, butane and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is a mixture of hydrocarbon gases. All of them are extremely flammable, have large expansion (from liquid to gas) ratios and are asphyxiants (meaning they displace oxygen in the air). They have low flashpoints, low boiling points and are heavier than air.

These gases are not refrigerated, so the temperatures of the liquids are close to the ambient temperatures where they exist. Therefore, these materials exist as a liquid in their container well above their boiling point in most ambient conditions in the United States. That is where the term "boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion" (BLEVE) originates. When a container is breached during a BLEVE, all of the liquid in the container is released and almost instantly expands and turns into a gas. This is a violent process that usually rips apart containers and rockets parts of the container thousands of feet from the initial location. If the material in the container is flammable and locates an ignition source, a fireball may also result. It is this BLEVE process that resulted in the deaths and injuries in the communities previously mentioned. Several factors involving liquefied gas containers can result in a BLEVE. Flame impingement on the vapor space of the container weakens the metal rather quickly. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics indicate that most BLEVEs occur within 15 to 20 minutes of the start of flame impingement.

Containers can also be damaged during derailments and other accidents. This damage can weaken the integrity of a container. Increases in ambient temperature or heat from adjacent fires can cause an increase in pressure within a container. At some point, the weakened portion of the container can no longer handle the pressure increase and the container comes apart violently.

Rural America is often protected by small career, combination or all-volunteer fire departments. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reports that 87% of the fire departments in the country are volunteer or mostly volunteer and protect 38% of the population. Many of these communities are small by population, but have large hazardous materials exposures. In some, railroad lines transport hazardous materials. Other small communities may have pipelines. Few have waterways that transport hazardous materials. Most do not have any major air exposures, but may have a local flying service that does aerial spraying of pesticides. However, all of them have some form of highway transportation and/or fixed storage of hazardous materials.

Rural fire departments often struggle just to maintain equipment and personnel to respond to fires and medical calls and many do not have a hazmat-response capability beyond the awareness level. There may even be some that do not have awareness-level training, even though it is required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for all first responders and recommended by the NFPA as well. From its regulations, I interpret OSHA's general point of view is that personnel should be trained and equipped for the job they are being asked to do. Unfortunately, because regulations and training have been so structured in the past, some of those with awareness-level training have been trained beyond what is really needed in their communities. In other instances, responders have not received nearly enough training. For example, most awareness-level training includes five routes of transportation: water, pipeline, air, rail and highway. Not every community has all of these exposures. Why train firefighters and other responders about water, air or rail issues if they do not have those exposures in their communities? That time could be better spent training them for the exposures they do have - particularly the more common hazardous materials like liquefied petroleum gases, hydrocarbon fuels, anhydrous ammonia, chlorine and pesticides, which are present in the vast majority of rural communities across America.

As previously mentioned, liquefied petroleum gases are the hazardous materials that have killed and injured most of the firefighters and civilians over the years. "Rural Hazmat Awareness" is a training concept that should provide a great deal of time on liquefied petroleum gases and other local hazards. Given the history of past LPG incidents, there is no reason we should continue to kill and injure firefighters responding to those incidents. Often, hazardous materials that are commonplace are overlooked because they are so common. I venture to say in some cases they may not even be considered that hazardous by those who work around them frequently, the public and even some responders. We think we understand their characteristics when we really don't. We do not always know how they may behave under fire and other emergency conditions.

Knowledge of the containers hazardous materials are shipped and stored in is also important as is how those containers will perform under fire and other stress conditions. Rail cars used to transport liquefied petroleum gases today are insulated and may not ordinarily BLEVE as quickly as uninsulated highway and fixed-storage containers may. Strategies and tactics taught and used by firefighters responding to pressurized containers on fire are often misguided. The Albert City, IA, propane explosion was investigated by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). Following its investigation, the board recommended that the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) revise its videos, manuals and other training materials to provide appropriate instruction on responding to potential tank BLEVEs. A similar recommendation was directed to the Fire Service Institute of Iowa State University, the fire service training organization in that state.

We need to base our response to hazardous materials on the risk involved along with a thorough evaluation of the incident conditions present. If there is little to gain in terms of life safety by our actions, then we should not risk the safety of personnel. With the exception of Waverly, TN, many of the incidents mentioned in this column have resulted in more injuries and deaths to firefighters than civilians. Were you to study in detail the events and circumstances surrounding these incidents, you would realize that there was little to gain in most cases and too much risk to response personnel just to save property. It is fine to save property, but only if it can be done without unnecessarily risking the lives of firefighters.

CSB's Albert City investigation also uncovered a potentially misleading statement in the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). which is carried in thousands of emergency vehicles around the country. The ERG is often consulted by firefighters when responding to hazmat incidents. The 1996 version of the ERG stated that responders should "always stay away from the ends of tanks" when fighting flammable liquid tank fires. This advice could give the false impression that the sides of the tank are safer in such cases. On the advice of the CSB, the DOT revised the year 2000 Guidebook, which now counsels firefighters who face propane fires to "always stay away from tanks engulfed in fire." Additionally, the 2008 version of the ERG recommends that firefighters "fight fires involving tanks from maximum distance or use unmanned hose holders or monitor nozzles." Firefighters, and especially rural firefighters, should be familiar with the ERG and how to use it and know its capabilities and limitations. It will likely be the only information available initially and the isolation and evacuation distances can be particularly important for responder and public protection.

Rural fire departments may be hours away from the nearest hazmat team. Even when hazmat teams do respond to rural areas, they often only send enough personnel to perform entry into a "hot zone." Local firefighters should be prepared to conduct at the very least "emergency decontamination" and can be prepared to conduct technical decontamination as well. Emergency decontamination can be safely accomplished by first-responding firefighters to reduce the contamination and potential damage to public victims and any response personnel who have become contaminated. Emergency decontamination can be performed without any special equipment or protective clothing. Firefighter turnouts and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) will protect firefighters as long as they stay out of visible product and remain upwind and uphill from contaminated persons. Hoselines from engine companies or master streams on wide fog from elevated apparatus can provide the water necessary to conduct emergency decontamination. Commercial devices for emergency decontamination are also available.

Departments may also train and equip specialized teams to do technical decontamination and assist responding hazmat teams or decontaminate ambulatory victims at incident scenes even before the hazmat team arrives. Setting up a technical decontamination capability is not expensive. Most supplies can be obtained from local merchants who may even be willing to donate materials. Personnel protective equipment (PPE) would consist of Level B protection, which is a splash suit, along with SCBA, which most departments should already have. Monitoring instruments could also be helpful for known chemicals that are present in a community. For example, a four-gas meter is used to determine carbon monoxide (CO), oxygen deficiency, hydrogen sulfide (usually found in confined spaces) and lower explosive limits (LEL) for flammable vapors. Confined spaces may be present in some farming operations as well as commercial grain elevators. Farming associations, grain elevator operators or community groups may be willing to help with funding for monitoring instruments. There are also federal grant programs that can be used for them.

With hazmat teams several hours away in some cases, rural departments need to prepare to deal with hazardous materials that are in or transported through their communities. Train your personnel to use the DOT ERG when ever they suspect hazardous materials are present. On drill nights, visit hazmat locations within the community and become familiar with tanks, valves and products. Work with your Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) to find and visit locations where hazardous materials exist. Train your personnel to at least have a capability to conduct emergency decontamination. As a department, become familiar with the tanks and hazardous materials in them that are stored and transported through your communities. Your efforts prior to an incident may prevent injuries and deaths when an incident does occur in the heartland.

ROBERT BURKE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland Baltimore. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be contacted at robert.burke@att.net.