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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Privacy for victims can be accomplished in a number of ways. Most fire department companies carry tarps of various sizes. With a little pre-preparation, procedures can be developed to use tarps in combination with ladders, fire apparatus or natural features at the site to provide privacy screens. For example, the Seattle Fire Department has developed a procedure for setting up a privacy corridor using an aerial ladder extended straight out. Tarps are hooked to the ladder with pre-fabricated hooks. The base of the tarp is held in place with a hoseline.

Commercially available tents and decon trailers can also be used to provide privacy. Once the decon process is complete, victims will need to be covered with some type of temporary clothing. Paper clothing is available, as are hospital gowns and scrubs. Plastic trash bags with holes cut for head and arms can also be useful.

Tarps and plastic sheeting can be used to help control runoff from emergency decontamination. However, the number-one priority is the decontamination of victims; if personnel and equipment are not available for controlling runoff, then it should not be a concern at that point. Victims should always take priority over property or the environment.

Weather can provide challenges for responders for both emergency and technical decontamination. Cold weather climates are a particular problem. Ice can form from runoff, creating a dangerous fall hazard for responders and victims. Cold climates also present an exposure problem for victims, particularly during emergency decontamination. If heated water is available, it should be used during cold weather, but responders may have to be creative. Decon tents and trailers are usually outfitted with water-heating capability. Pools and make-shift emergency decontamination lines usually do not have heated water available. Water-heating decon devices are available commercially independent of trailers or tents, but they can be expensive.

If you are in a cold climate, you need to make some provision for heating decontamination water. The Anchorage Fire Department in Alaska has developed a dry-decontamination process for cold weather to use on personnel who have been exposed to vapors or gases. This process makes use of positive-pressure evacuation fans that blow vapors and gases off of protective equipment. Personnel are then assisted with undressing and protective clothing is bagged for evaluation or disposed of if the PPE is disposable.

Decontamination can present many challenges, but they can all be overcome with the proper planning, training and equipment. Every fire department large and small should be able to conduct an effective emergency decontamination with equipment already available.


Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland. 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 a veteran of 26 years in fire and emergency services, with experience in career and volunteer departments. He has attained the rank of lieutenant, assistant chief and deputy state fire marshal. 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 reached at robert.burke@att.net.