What's New in HazMat?

When you start out learning about hazardous materials response and the myriad of topics that go along with that it can be very daunting regardless of your years on the job. But as time passes and you keep your nose to the proverbial grindstone you start to get a comfort level and that steep learning curve starts to flatten out somewhat. Combined with educational opportunities and even field experience plateaus do occur along the way but it seems there is always more to learn. Then, out of nowhere, learning comes in leaps and bounds and before you know it that learning curve is steep again to the next plateau. But out of those insightful experiences come a renewed vigor and a commitment toward excellence that can only be satisfied by discovering new information.

Chaytor D. Mason, a former University of Southern California professor of human factor psychology, once said in 1975, "We must be constantly looking for new ways to do business". Only by keeping up with changes or new ways to do things in our industry can we make improvements and even maintain our safety. It is in this spirit that this installment is offered.

HazMat Research and Training

A few free research programs are offered by the federal government; WISER stands for "wireless information system for emergency responders" and is offered by the U.S. National Library of Medicine online at; www.wiser.nlm.nil.gov. This database is a work in progress but promises to offer more and more information as new versions are made available. For now, in-depth information on approximately 4,700 chemicals can be researched on levels geared for First Responders, EMS Specialist, and HazMat Specialist. Another free database is available through NIOSH called the Pocket Guidebook Electronic Version at: www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npg.html. This is an excellent data source on over 680 chemicals electronically. (Word has it that the printed version may be obsolete).

Do not overlook the valuable information within the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Case Studies at www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire. While most of the firefighters were killed responding to or while at structural fires, several of the case studies involve hazardous materials incidents. Excellent images of these events can also be viewed within the case studies. Also, a very good training site exists at www.usfa.dhs.gov/training/nfa/coffee-break. This "coffee break" training has a new topic each day and the sessions are easily read and brief.

The International Association of Fire Fighters offers several hazmat related courses to professional or full-time fire department affiliates. Access to the free courses is online at www.iaff.org. A few upcoming, newly developed courses include; Illicit Labs, Communicable Diseases, and Firefighter Safety. Another great training program for getting up to speed on monomers and their hazards can be found by contacting David Ghormley from Rohm and Haas Chemical Company at 281-228-2974.

Finally, a couple of very capable and dynamic hazmat instructors have premiered a website that teaches an evolutionary way to learn and apply chemistry to hazmat emergencies. Cris Aguirre and Joe Gorman have launched www.hazmatIQ.com that displays their unique method of street chemistry. This column will not steal their thunder nor attempt to describe their system. You need to login to their website to get the details!

HazMat Standards

NFPA 704, Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response, also has changes in store for how fixed site storage of hazardous materials will be marked in the 2007 version. This system, which uses the recognizable four quadrants of blue, red, yellow, and white, has been around since the early 1950's also uses numbers to indicate hazards from 0 to 4. The change has to do with the white "special information" quadrant that can depict "OX" for oxidizer or the W with a slash through it to indicate water reactivity. A new designation, "SA", can be used for hazardous materials that indicate a risk of "simple asphyxiant". One other change is that the reactivity level for sodium hydrosulfite has been increased from 0 to 1. A December 2000 incident near Oshkosh, Wisconsin is testimonial that sodium hydrosulfite can react with water and generate enough heat to self-combust. Area firefighters and hazmat personnel segregated a rail car of the material and allowed it to burn for several days before overhauling the remains.

NFPA 1992 (2005), Standard on Liquid Splash-Protective Ensembles and Clothing for Hazardous Materials Emergencies, has detailed changes to compliant Level B suits that will have the SCBA under the suit.

HazMat Containers

A new type of propane cylinder has been introduced to the market in the New York area. The 20 pound cylinders are made of fiberglass and come in a plastic outer protective casing but with the standard brass valve and relief device. A local fire authority, Nassau County Fire Service Academy, has tested the composite cylinders in both pool fire and impingement situations and found that while the fiberglass will melt and expose the liquid propane to fire, complete burn off of the fuel occurs between 14 and 16 minutes. Additionally, none of the above tests resulted in a BLEVE! Responder beware! More information is available at http://www.dos.state.ny.us/fire/firewww.html or 518-474-6746.

HazMat Mass Decon

Numerous fire departments and hazmat response agencies have wrestled with the concept of how to best decontaminate the largest number of people the fastest way. Concepts employed include the car wash method of using wide angle nozzles on discharge ports of fire pumpers, master streams on wide fog and low pressure from aerial devices, and even decon tents. All of these methods have advantages and disadvantages. For ease and cost even hoselines can be deployed the fastest and there are now master stream devices that can flow 500 gpm in less than one minute and without any staff to attend to the operation. The ultimate low cost and simplest device to date for mass decontamination purposes may very well be what the Columbus, Ohio Fire Department has developed-a mass decon hydrant cap. Every engine company in the city carries one and they are even pre-deployed before large events such as at the Ohio State Buckeye's football games. Captain William Brobst describes them as regular hydrant caps that have had numerous holes drilled into them to allow a wide angle shower of small jets of water when the hydrant is opened. In the event of a WMD event, contaminated victims could be directed toward a hydrant with the caps on and water flowing.

HazMat Response

A long time ago, Captain Harry White from the Nashville Fire Department's hazmat response team, used to comment at hazmat seminars he presented at that most hazmat teams were started with good intentions and little else. After many years of learning and experiencing hazmat emergencies it is now readily apparent what Captain White meant. It is simply this; there is much more to hazmat response than having a shiny truck and supplies for stopping leaks and cleaning up spills. Teams of today now know that to respond safely they need state-of-the-art suits, boots, gloves, monitoring instruments, control equipment, data sources, communication equipment, and most importantly, comprehensive training based on sound standard operating guidelines.

The early days saw many of us with steep learning curves and little experience but over time we overcame these large handicaps. Consequently, our decision making and risk assessment skills have improved greatly as a result of our experiential based careers. What follows is a short list of what has been learned over the years.

  • Experiential based risk assessment techniques
  • Learned to use and rely on monitoring instruments data
  • Learned to avoid Level A when a lower level is safe
  • Learned to analyze chemical and physical data of a released material in concert with environmental conditions to make safe and efficient decisions
  • Learned the difference between an "emergency" and an "incidental response"
  • Learned to integrate with private teams
  • Learned to better prepare first responders
  • Learned to apply lessons learned to future incidents

In closing, a recent case study illustrates how all of the above has been integrated and knowledge and experience can be applied at a hazmat emergency;

So, we come full circle! Only by learning more through seminars, conferences, websites, talking with each other, and learning vicariously through case studies, can we flatten the learning curve and handle our hazmat incidents efficiently and safely. Chaytor Mason was right in that we need to constantly look for new ways in which to respond because our world is full of changes and updates. It behooves all of us to be watchful because there is always something new in hazmat! Lets be careful out there!

As usual, please contact the author at dcnkm@charter.net if you have comments or questions.


David is a 26 year fire service veteran who serves as an officer on Ladder 6 in Madison, Wisconsin, and as the Operations and Training Director for the department's regional Level A hazmat team. David founded the Wisconsin Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, Inc. and served as the first president. Additionally, David teaches, presents, and authors articles for websites and trade magazines on a wide variety of hazmat topics. David is also a National Fire Academy instructor of chemistry and a Master Instructor for the International Association of Fire Fighters HazMat and Terrorism training programs.

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