Back To The Basics: Part 1

According to OSHA 29 CFR 1910.120 (q), every emergency responder who responds to the scene of a hazardous materials incident must be trained to a minimum of the awareness level. This requirement has been around since the mid-1980s, yet to this day there...


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Recent incidents have shown that hazmat emergencies do not happen just in large communities. Four separate incidents over a four-day period in November 2000 resulted in responders and the public being exposed to hazardous materials:

  • A fire in a chemical warehouse in Sonora, TX, required the evacuation of 200 residents. Polypropylene and cleaning solvents were involved in the fire. Tanks of methanol outside the building were not ignited by the blaze.
  • A train derailment in Scottsbluff, NE, resulted in the release of a petroleum byproduct containing 50% benzene from three punctured railcars. Levels of benzene detected in the air were several times above the allowable OSHA exposure limits, forcing the evacuation of more than 850 residents.
  • In Helena, AR, a highway box truck was identified with white smoke coming from the trailer. An explosion blew out the sides of the trailer and peeled back the roof. Several hundred residents were evacuated as a precaution.
  • All 127 residents of Granger, WY, were evacuated after a fire at a film-processing plant. The hazardous materials involved included oxygen and propane.

Hazmat incidents can happen anywhere, at anytime and involve anyone from the emergency response community. Actions of first responders at a hazardous materials incident must be strictly defensive in nature and include the following tasks:

  • Recognition
  • Notification
  • Identification
  • Protection

These four major first responder competencies are, in fact, the primary functions of awareness-level personnel and the focus of first responder training.

Recognition is comprised of the ability to determine when hazardous materials are present or might be present because of circumstances or clues at an incident scene. Recognition is the most important function of the first responder for both hazardous materials and terrorist incidents. If the hazardous materials or terrorist incident is not recognized as such, then nothing else matters in terms of first responder tasks. Terrorism involves some different circumstances and recognition clues, but most of the operations performed by hazardous materials personnel, including first responders, would be similar.

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Photo by Robert Burke
Outside resources need to be notified for assistance at hazmat incident scenes.

Six clues are typically addressed by first responders for identifying hazardous materials: occupancy/location, container shape, markings/color, placards and labels, MSDS and shipping papers. These clues require the use of the human senses, including sight, hearing and smell, to indicate the presence of hazardous materials. First responders should not experience odor or smell, but witnesses may report a distinctive odor that may be a clue. Additional clues can also be helpful, including odors, dead animals, gas leaks, fire or vapor cloud, damaged vegetation, visible corrosive actions or chemical reactions, dead marine life, pooled liquids, hissing of pressure releases, condensation lines on pressure tanks, injured victims, or casualties.

Human senses can be dangerous as indicators of hazardous materials' presence. Only sight and hearing can be used safely, with a measure of common sense. Much can be seen and heard by the alert responder to gather information about a hazardous material and its container.

Hazardous materials are stored and used in every community. Responders should be able to identify potential locations of hazardous materials in the community by the type of occupancy and location where they may be stored or used. For example, in many small communities across the country, farm chemical supply stores may contain pesticides, anhydrous ammonia, propane, ammonium nitrate, motor vehicle fuels and other chemicals. If a farm chemical supply store is located in your community, expect to find those types of chemicals there.

Hospitals may contain liquid oxygen, anesthetic gases, cleaning supplies and disinfectants, to name a few. Water and sewage treatment plants may contain chlorine and other treatment chemicals. High schools and colleges can contain many different kinds of chemicals in science classrooms, flammable liquids and gases in shop areas, and cleaning supplies. The list can go on and on.