Hazmat Response In Philadelphia

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The City of Philadelphia, with a heavy chemical-industry presence on its south and east sides, takes a proactive approach to hazardous-materials response. While some emergency response organizations have scaled back and even eliminated some levels of hazmat response, Philadelphia purchased a new hazardous materials unit, Hazmat 1, and built a new, specially designed four-bay fire station to house the unit and other apparatus.

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Photo by Robert Burke
The Philadelphia Fire Department's Hazmat 1 responds to about 70 hazardous-materials incidents each year.

Under the leadership of Fire Commissioner Harold B. Hairston, the fire department's 2,400 uniformed personnel operate 65 engine companies, 28 truck companies, one heavy rescue, 37 medic units, two fireboats, the hazmat unit and six foam units. Hazmat 1 responds on average to about 70 incidents each year. Hairston has shown the fire department's commitment to this effort by the construction of the new station, located at 2301 S. 24th St.

While riding with a friend, Battalion Chief William Doty, I had the opportunity to visit the new station and see Hazmat 1. Talking with the officers and firefighters of Engine 60 and Ladder 19, who make up the hazmat team on A shift, I sensed a great deal of dedication and pride in their new quarters and equipment.

Philadelphia's hazmat team members have received the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Level III technician course, courses covering radiological monitoring and the chemistry of hazardous materials, and a five-level in-house training program. The five levels consist of:

  • Level I - Understanding hazardous materials, 32 hours.
  • Level II - Personnel protective equipment (PPE), 16 hours.
  • Level III - Decontamination, eight hours.
  • Level IV - Plugging and patching, 40 hours.
  • Level V - Monitoring instruments and meters, 16 hours.

Hazmat 1's quarters are laid out all on one floor except for a second-level storage area for hazmat-response supplies. The engine bay has locker space for bunker gear, a storage room and a decontamination station. Living quarters include separate bath and locker rooms for men and women, a bunk room, offices for each company, a conference room, kitchen and watch desk. The building also houses a new police station providing coverage of South Philadelphia.

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Photo by Robert Burke
The crew cab walk-in work area of Hazmat 1.

The hazmat station is located in Battalion 1, the area of highest hazmat exposure in the city, and bounded by Market Street on the north, the Navy Yard on the south, Front Street on the east and 25th Street on the west. Hazmat 1 responds to incidents throughout Philadelphia. In addition to the hazmat unit, the station houses Engine 60, Ladder 19, Medic 37 and Hazmat Support Unit 101.

When a hazmat response is requested, crews from Engine 60 and Ladder 19 combine forces to place Hazmat 1 in service. The ladder is placed out of service and Engine 60, Hazmat 1 and Support Unit 101 make up the hazmat task force.

Initial manning includes two officers, eight firefighters, battalion chief 1 and his aide. Backup hazmat-trained firefighters are located at Stations 1, 10, 24 and 49. These personnel fill in at the hazmat station when assigned crew members are off duty and also are available to respond.

Statistics for hazmat responses within Philadelphia do not include local engine runs for hydrocarbon fuel spills. Each engine carries about 25 pounds of absorbent material for cleaning up fuel spills. If a spill is too large for an engine to handle, one of the seven "depot" companies located throughout the city responds with larger amounts of absorbent material.

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Photo by Robert Burke
Side compartments of Hazmat 1 with roll-up doors.

Most hazmat incidents in Philadelphia are small and usually involve "unknown materials." The city uses the "Haz-Cat" hazard-categorizing system for identifying unknown materials in addition to an on-board computer and reference materials. (At large fires involving hazardous materials the hazmat unit assumes a support role.)

On Aug. 17, 1975, eight Philadelphia firefighters made the ultimate sacrifice at an 11-alarm hazmat incident and fire at the former Gulf Oil Refinery on the city's south side. While a foam tank on Engine 133 was being filled, the foam layer on hydrocarbon compounds broke down. The product reignited, trapping and engulfing three firefighters in flames. Five other firefighters attempted to rescue them, but all eight died in the line of duty. Thirty-three other firefighters were injured. That was the only time Philadelphia firefighters died dealing with hazardous materials. (While it wasn't a hazmat incident, three city firefighters died during a high-profile fire at the One Meridian Plaza high-rise on Feb. 23, 1991. This fire was caused by a chemical reaction of improperly stored linseed oil-soaked rags that spontaneously combusted.)

Chemicals located in and transported through Philadel-phia include sulfuric acid, ammonia, formaldehyde, ethylene oxide (an ether), propane, benzene, hydrochloric acid and chlorine. Also, a wide variety of petroleum products are manufactured, stored and shipped in the city.

Most of Philadelphia's hazmat sites are on the city's south and east sides and consist of large refineries, chemical plants and transportation routes. These include facilities operated by Allied Chemical, Ashland Chem-ical, Rhom & Hass and Sun Oil. Also present are port facilities where supertankers are loaded and unloaded and where smaller intermodal containers are taken off ships. Many of the intermodals contain hazardous materials and are transferred from ships to trucks and railroad flatcars for transportation to other parts of the country.

Major highways on which hazardous materials are carried pass through Philadelphia, including Interstates 76 and 95 and U.S. Highways 1 and 13. Conrail and CSX are the major railroads that serve the city and routes pass through the north, south and central portions of Philadelphia. Two major rivers also border Philadelphia - the Delaware to the east and the Schuylkill to the south. Many of the hazardous materials transported through the city travel by river to or from the many chemical facilities located on the rivers' banks.

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Photo by Robert Burke
The Sun Oil refinery south of downtown Philadelphia is one of several sites in the city that contain hazardous materials.

Philadelphia's hazmat team members are a close-knit group, with each person having a "niche"; some members specialize in research via computer, others concentrate on monitoring instruments, and others keep the unit stocked and maintained. All shifts work closely together to insure that Hazmat 1 is always ready to respond. Philadelphia fire officers normally are rotated between stations every three years. At the hazardous materials unit, however, the officers do not rotate and they have a combined experience of over 30 years in hazmat response. Most of the technicians have an average of three years of experience on the team.

Equipment on Hazmat 1 is organized into numbered compartments. An area for communications, computer operation and research is housed in the large walk-in air conditioned crew cab, protected from the harsh weather extremes in Philadelphia. To assist during hazmat operations, the cab work area has a fax machine, hazmat library, nine portable radios, a laptop computer with the software program Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations (CAMEO), two mobile telephones, and an instant camera and film. The other compartments on the unit contain monitoring instruments, assorted PPE, decontamination equipment, chlorine kits, patching and plugging equipment and supplies, absorbent materials and support equipment. Spare air bottles and an air cascade system and generator round out the well-equipped unit.

In the 1990s, a new buzzword surfaced in hazmat response: terrorism. Incidents at the World Trade Center in New York City and the Federal Building in Oklahoma City brought home the dangers of terrorism to emergency responders. Because they are the first called to all types of emergencies, firefighters and EMS personnel need to prepare for response to terrorist incidents. The U.S. Army, through its Chemical And Biological Defense Command, has developed terrorism-response training for emergency responders in 120 of the nation's largest cities. Philadelphia is one of those cities and its firefighters have already received the training. Officers of the rank of captain and above received incident command training. Hazmat team members and backups took technician training. All other firefighters received responder awareness and operations training and medics received specialized EMS training.

One potential exposure problem for responders to terrorism attacks involves nerve agents. There are effective antidotes for nerve agents, but they must be administered soon after exposure. Philadelphia has issued antidote kits to all fire companies for their personnel. EMS units also have available to them enough antidotes for 5,000 civilian casualties from nerve-agent attacks.

Fire Departments: The Nation's First Responders

As is true across the country, Philadelphia's fire department responds to all emergency incidents involving chemicals. Indeed, fire departments are the nation's first responders to all types of emergencies, including fires, emergency medical calls, natural disasters and acts of terrorism.

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Photo by Robert Burke
The fireboat "Delaware" is ready to respond to hazmat incidents as well as fires and other emergencies in Philadelphia. Two major rivers, the Delaware and the Schuylkill, border the city, and many hazardous materials are transported by river to or from the many chemical facilities located on the rivers' banks.

From the response to chemical incidents the term "hazardous materials" (or "hazmat") became a buzzword of the 1970s and '80s. With the passage of the Superfund amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986, also known as the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA), hazmat took a giant leap forward in the emergency-response community. For the first time, the federal government mandated levels of training and response procedures for firefighters and other emergency responders.

Under regulations promulgated by the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) five levels of competency were established for hazmat response in the public and private sectors. These levels are: awareness, operations, technician, specialist and incident commander. All emergency personnel who respond to hazmat incidents must be trained to a minimum of the first-responder awareness level before they can "legally" respond to emergency scenes. First responders include firefighters, EMS personnel, police officers, and public-works and private-industry employees.

Not all hazmat responses are dispatched as such at first. It is up to first responders to determine whether hazardous materials are present and to take appropriate actions. Because all emergency scenes are potential hazmat incidents, in reality all response personnel must have hazmat awareness training.

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Photo by Robert Burke
Hazmat Support Unit 101, above, responds with Hazmat 1 and Engine 60 as Philadelphia's hazmat task force.

Federal regulations did not establish minimum training hours for the awareness level, just minimum competencies. Training programs nationwide range from four to 16 hours. Operations-level personnel are still considered first responders, but are given additional competencies and responsibilities above the awareness level. Eight hours of training as a minimum are required by the regulations for operations-level personnel. All Philadelphia firefighters and medics are trained to the operations level.

Many fire and police departments formed dedicated hazmat response teams to deal with incidents within their communities. Philadelphia's hazmat team was in place long before the federal requirements were enacted. Hazmat team members are required to complete 24 hours of technician-level training over and above the awareness and operations training. Hazmat specialists, under the federal regulations, are considered hazmat team leaders or officers. They are required to have an additional 24 hours of training, beyond the awareness, operations and technician levels, to be certified.

Training requirements for hazmat responders at specific locations are based on the jobs they are asked to do by the employer; for our purposes, the employer is the fire department. The employer determines what training is necessary above the federal requirements, where the training will be taken and who will do the training, if done in-house. Certification of each level of hazmat response is a function of the employer. Outside agencies conduct training, but do not certify competency; that is the employer's responsibility.

Robert Burke


Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland and has served on state and county hazmat response teams. Burke is a veteran of over 17 years in career and volunteer fire departments, serving as assistant chief and deputy state fire marshal. He holds an associate's degree in fire protection technology and a bachelor's degree in fire science, and is pursuing a master's degree in public administration. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and is the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry For Emergency Responders, published in 1997, and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders, to be published this year. He can be reached on the Internet at robert.burke@worldnet.att.net.

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