Emergency and Technical Decontamination for Hazmat and Terrorism

Whether you are a member of a hazardous materials response team or a first responder, decontamination is one of the most important actions taken by emergency personnel during a hazmat or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) incident. Decon reduces the...


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Technical decontamination is performed with equipment carried on the hazmat or decon units for just that purpose. It has little other value in any other type of operation. Equipment is not highly technical and does not have to be expensive. The process requires a device to catch contaminated water; buckets and hose; tarps to set collection devices on; and soap, scrub brushes and trash containers. Water-catching devices or pools are available commercially that have steel frames and plastic liners. Children’s swimming pools, both rigid and inflatable, also work well, are disposable and are available at toy stores. Other supplies and equipment can be purchased from home improvement or hardware stores.

Decontamination relies heavily on water, so a supply must be established from a domestic source, fire hydrant or fire apparatus. Volume should be kept to the minimum necessary to accomplish the job as the runoff may need to be contained. Following the incident, environmental or health officials should be consulted for disposition of decon runoff.

Soap and water are the only decon solutions that should be used on victims or personnel in PPE. Bleach should not be used on victims, even if a chemical or biological agent is involved. Bleach can cause injury and even blindness if it gets into the eyes.

Emergency Decontamination

Emergency decontamination has become a major response objective of first responders to terrorist incidents. Initially from a priority standpoint, emergency decontamination is more concerned with reducing the effects of hazardous materials or terrorist agents on victims. Preventing cross contamination becomes a secondary issue. The idea is to get the hazardous materials off of the person or persons contaminated as quickly as possible so that the damage to the affected area can be minimized. Emergency decontamination should be conducted upwind and uphill from victims. Responders should avoid contact with victims, runoff or spray from the decon operation.

One of the few clues that may be present as to what has happened on a potential WMD incident scene may be the symptoms of victims. If victims are exhibiting symptoms, then emergency decontamination should be performed. If no symptoms occur and there is no obvious contamination present, then victims can wait for technical decontamination.

When a hazardous material or terrorist agent comes in contact with the skin, it can cause damage at the point of contact, be inhaled, or be absorbed into the body and move to a susceptible target organ. Emergency decontamination applied quickly upon arrival will help reduce the effects of agents on the body.

Emergency decontamination also works well for hazmat incidents where someone has been splashed with a corrosive or other material that is absorbed through the skin. Damage to exposed skin can continue as long as the material in on the person. Copious amounts of water should be applied to counter the effects and remove the material.

Emergency decontamination can be accomplished with equipment carried on apparatus for firefighting and rescue operations. Aerial master streams with adjustable nozzles can be put on wide-angle fog patterns and sprayed toward the ground, creating a decon shower. Nozzles can also be placed on the discharge ports of engines. Commercial devices also are available specifically for emergency decontamination. Such devices provide a wide spray pattern for mass decontamination. They can be attached to a ladder pipe on an aerial apparatus or a discharge port on an engine, or hooked directly into a hydrant to free apparatus for other functions.

Removing Clothing

The first step in technical or emergency decontamination of victims is to remove their outer clothing. Most of the contamination will likely be on the clothing of victims. Once removed, clothing and other personnel belongings should be bagged and marked for later disposal upon consultation with health and environmental officials.

Removing outer clothing of victims, while reducing the hazard, raises the question of privacy. Victims may be children and or adults. Provisions need to be made so that victims are segregated by age and gender. Children will be apprehensive of the decon process and the removal of outer clothing – the younger they are, the more apprehensive they may be. In some cases, children may be allowed to participate in some stages of decon, such as rinsing one another with a hose. Letting children participate in the decon process can greatly reduce the chaos and make the situation seem fun while accomplishing the task at hand.