Decontamination Training With OC Pepper Spray

Steve McConachie reviews techniques used by the sheriff's department, local firefighters and hazardous materials technicians to provide decontamination training for OC pepper spray.


Over the past few years, first responders throughout the world have developed innovative ways of training and preparing to deal with mass-casualty events that require mass decontamination. While the fire service has been preparing to respond to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the law...


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Over the past few years, first responders throughout the world have developed innovative ways of training and preparing to deal with mass-casualty events that require mass decontamination. While the fire service has been preparing to respond to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the law enforcement community has been training with a popular chemical agent of its own - OC pepper spray.

The active ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum (OC), which is produced naturally in hot peppers. People exposed to OC experience a burning sensation, particularly in the eyes, nose, mouth and throat. Severe pain and tearing may result in temporary blindness, and breathing may become difficult as the OC affects the respiratory system. Effects of pepper spray mimic many of the symptoms of chemical agents, such as nerve and choking agents, but without significant risk of death or permanent injury.

Not only is pepper spray a law enforcement tool, but it is also readily available to the public for self defense and is commonly carried by utility and postal workers to control dogs and other animals. Many fire companies have responded to incidents involving pepper spray in schools, shopping malls and restaurants. Some of these incidents have involved the legitimate use of this product, while others have been the result of malicious or accidental releases. In any case, innocent bystanders have often been affected.

Pepper spray is not toxic, but it is a strong irritant used to control unruly individuals and crowds. Last year, its use turned deadly in Chicago, when panic ensued after security guards used the substance to break up a fight in a crowded nightclub. Twenty-one people died of crushing and suffocation as over 1,500 patrons rushed for the stairs and exit doors. Although manufacturers of pepper spray market it as "less than lethal," the tragedy in Chicago illustrates how lethal the product can be if used improperly.

Police officers in many jurisdictions are required to be exposed to pepper spray in training before being permitted to carry it. The objective is to develop an understanding of the effects and limitations of OC, better preparing officers to deal with suspects that have been sprayed. Also, officers are better able to protect themselves if they are ever contaminated with OC.

The Allegheny County, PA, Sheriff's Department has partnered with local firefighters and hazardous materials technicians to provide training that has proven beneficial to all participants. While the police recruits learn from personal contact with OC, firefighters benefit from the opportunity to perform decontamination on live "victims" exhibiting real symptoms.

One of the objectives of this training is to have the police recruits, while playing the role of victims, perform self-decontamination under the direction of firefighters. In a mass-decontamination event, limited resources of fire and hazmat personnel may require victims to decontaminate themselves and each other under the supervision of firefighters.

Another objective is to encourage responders to utilize proper protective equipment and avoid becoming contaminated themselves. It is easy to become cross contaminated with OC while working with people who have been exposed to pepper spray. It is also easy to become contaminated with biological pathogens, as pepper spray causes its victims to secrete bodily fluids from the eyes, nose and mouth. Respiratory protection is recommended, along with full protective clothing. Although structural firefighting gear provides limited protection against exposure to OC, disposable gloves and coveralls may be preferred.

Manufacturers of OC pepper spray consider it to be a food product derivative rather than a contaminant. Therefore, they emphasize that victims should be "cleansed" rather than "decontaminated." For our purposes, the terms are the same. Cleansing usually involves the use of water, and may be improved with a mild soap.

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