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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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