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According to the National Fire Academy, "Decontamination is a chemical or physical process used to remove and prevent the spread of contaminants from an emergency scene due to their ability to cause harm to living beings and/or the environment."
Decontamination is an important step in protecting emergency personnel and the public during a hazardous materials or terrorist incident. Decon provides protection for victims, including emergency responders, who have become contaminated without the benefit of proper protective clothing. It also protects responders who have entered an incident scene with proper protective clothing by removing any harmful materials they may have contacted during operations. The longer harmful materials contact the body, the more damage that is done. Therefore, the quicker decon can be performed, the quicker the damage can be limited or stopped.
Typically, decon has been a part of hazmat response team operations. According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 472, a "Hazardous Materials Response Team is an organized group of trained personnel operating under an emergency response plan and appropriate standard operating procedures who handle and control actual or potential leaks or spills of hazardous materials requiring possible close approach to the material. The team members respond to releases or potential releases of hazardous materials for the purpose of control or stabilization of the incident."
Decontamination generally involves the use of a "corridor" (sometimes referred to as a "contamination reduction corridor") with a gross contaminant reduction section followed by a series of wash-and-rinse stations, an undressing area and a rehabilitation area. This type of decontamination is referred to as "technical decon." However, technical decon operations take time to set up. If a community must wait for a hazmat team to respond from a remote location, the setup is delayed even longer. While the response and setup of technical decon is taking place, chemicals are continuing to harm victims.
Photo by Robert Burke
Technical decontamination is set up for hazardous materials entry team personnel.
This is where the concept of "emergency decontamination" comes into play. NFPA 472 defines emergency decontamination as "the physical process of immediately reducing contamination of individuals in potentially life-threatening situations without the formal establishment of a contamination corridor." Emergency decon is performed by first-responding personnel using ordinary firefighting equipment and water to flush contaminants from victims of hazmat incidents or acts of terrorism.
Terrorism involving the use of chemical and biological weapons is a major concern for emergency responders. Once again, the primary protective measure for victims is decontamination to remove harmful materials from the body. Emergency decon is a standard procedure for use with victims of exposure to terrorist incidents in which chemical agents, radioactive materials, riot control agents or biological agents have been deployed.
While the concept of emergency decon for terrorism is well established, I am not sure all first responders realize that the same tactics can be used for other hazardous materials. Many training programs for first responders do not even mention emergency decon as an option. In fact, I think many times we instill so much fear into first responders that they do not want to do anything with victims. It makes no sense to force people who has been splashed with an acid or other harmful chemical to wait for a hazmat team to set up technical decon before the materials can be removed from their bodies.
Response protocols for hazmat incidents have identified the duties of first responders as isolation, notification, protection, and identification. Protection includes personnel protective clothing for responders and evacuation or sheltering in place for the public. Protection should also include emergency decon for contaminated victims.