Security Vs. Safety: The Hazmat Placarding Controversy

We are recommending that the Department of Transportation maintain the placard system as it is now.” With these words, spoken at the Congressional Fire Services Institute dinner on April 7 in Washington, DC, Department of Homeland Security Secretary...


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The IAFC took a strong stance in response to proposals to limit the use of placards. In response to the August request for comments, it said, “IAFC opposes the termination or diminution of the current placarding system…until such time as a replacement system has been demonstrated to be effective, fully funded, and both the fire and emergency service and law enforcement personnel have been fully trained in its use.” In other words, don’t impose new security requirements that might compromise safe emergency response until an equally effective alternative has been put into place.

It is understandable that homeland security agencies might conclude that hazmat placards create an increased security risk by marking targets for terrorists. However, as Chertoff noted, this risk must be balanced against the needs of people who respond to derailments and other accidents that happen every day, and the need to understand the hazard that they are facing.

Security improvements may enhance safety, and vice versa. However, the fire service must remain vigilant to ensure that laws, regulations and other federal mandates for security requirements don’t compromise their emergency response and public safety responsibilities. There must be vigilance at both at the national level, on issues such as placarding, and at the local level, where site-specific security plans must accommodate the need for emergency response of all types. The amicable resolution of a conflict between the two laws in this instance illustrates the value of such vigilance.


Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.