Hazmat Response In Philadelphia

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...


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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.