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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Various commercial cleansing agents containing water, soap, tea and/or herbal extracts are available specifically for OC pepper spray, and are intended for law enforcement officers to use on suspects who have been sprayed with OC. These products are generally intended for individual victims and may be used when no water is available.
In Allegheny County, emergency responders have experimented with a number of common cleansing agents, and found that baby shampoo works well. Various liquid soaps and dishwashing detergents also work well, but are not intended for eyes. Baby shampoo is formulated to be gentle to the eyes. Under no circumstances should chlorine bleach or harsh chemicals be used on victims.
Before cleansing begins, pepper spray victims are directed to remove contaminated clothing and contact lenses. When training with pepper spray, contact lenses should not be worn. Victims should also dab any excess product from their skin with a clean, dry cloth. Next, victims are asked to hold out their hands with their palms up to receive a generous amount of full-strength shampoo. Rather than mixing shampoo with water, it works very well straight out of the bottle. Victims are instructed to rub the shampoo into affected skin and eyes for about 30 seconds.
Water is then used to remove the shampoo, along with any remaining OC. Cool water should be applied gently from small hoses. Garden hoses and nozzles work well. Buckets and tubs of water should be avoided because they retain OC and will re-expose victims. Remember that pepper spray is a food derivative and may be washed away without causing environmental harm. Confinement of runoff products should be a lesser priority when victims are involved - life safety comes first.
Once the shampoo is thoroughly rinsed away, victims need another clean cloth to dry themselves off. Victims should then be exposed to fresh air in order for any remaining pepper spray to dissipate. Although victims may ask for more water to help relieve the pain, this should be avoided. Once a victim's face is dry, the pain will go away quickly as the OC evaporates. More water only delays this process.
After victims are thoroughly cleansed and comfortable, they are reviewed by medical personnel. Once released, they are directed to go home and take a shower. Never allow victims to operate a vehicle unless they are able to do so safely. Remind them that the pain may flare up again once in the shower, as water re-activates any remaining OC. Also, recommend that they lean forward while showering, so that the remaining OC does not run down and affect the crotch area - this can be very painful!
Toxic chemicals, including chemical warfare agents, are real threats and must be understood by all emergency responders. Realistic training is an integral part of chemical emergency preparedness.
Firefighters and hazmat technicians can benefit from training with law enforcement officers, and OC pepper spray offers a unique opportunity in which "victims" are "contaminated" for training purposes. The symptoms are real, and so are the hazards. The lessons learned from training scenarios may prove to be beneficial in real-life chemical emergencies.
Steve McConachie is a firefighter at Laurel Gardens Volunteer Fire Company in Ross Township, PA. He is vice president of the Pennsylvania Association of Hazardous Materials Technicians and a former commander of the Allegheny County Silver Team, a state-certified hazardous materials response team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.