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 are emergency responders who do not have hazmat awareness training. That is equivalent to sending firefighters to fight a fire without self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) training; EMS personnel to a heart attack without CPR training; and police officers to an armed robbery without firearms training.

Photo by Robert Burke
Fires, EMS incidents, motor vehicle accidents and other emergencies may also be hazardous materials incidents. It makes good sense to prepare emergency responders to deal with hazmat incidents.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations aside, it just makes good sense to prepare emergency responders to deal with hazardous materials. Responding to acts of terrorism has also become the focus of specialized awareness training for emergency responders. I mention terrorism preparedness in a hazmat column because I believe terrorism is a form of hazmat incident, with special circumstances.

Chemicals are chemicals, whether used by terrorists or involved in accidental releases. Many of the same emergency responders will be involved and hazmat procedures implemented at a terrorist incident. Response to terrorism requires training for first responders in addition to awareness training required to respond to hazmat incidents.

Chief John Eversole of the Chicago Fire Department and chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Hazardous Materials Committee, has always said, "If you can't do hazmat, you can't do terrorism." Gene Ryan, a hazmat team officer with the Chicago Fire Department, sums up chemical and biological agents as "hazmats with attitude." There is a lot of truth in both statements. Therefore, terrorism awareness competencies will be addressed in this column in addition to hazmat awareness.

Photo by Robert Burke
First responders must be able to determine the types of hazardous materials found in a facility by the type of occupancy.

When the OSHA requirements were first issued, it was difficult to convince segments of the response community that the training was needed. There were chiefs who declared, "We won't respond to hazardous materials incidents, then we won't require the training." Well, think about it - how many hazmat incidents or other emergencies that have the potential for hazardous materials, are called in or dispatched as hazmat incidents? Many emergencies start out as fires, EMS responses, traffic accidents or crimes, but then involve hazardous materials as an additional problem.

Emergency responders are not always aware of what to look for in a potential hazmat situation. They may become victims of the hazardous materials and not know it until they experience injury, illness or death from the exposure. That is why ALL emergency response personnel, including fire, EMS, police, public works and certain others, should have a minimum of awareness-level training for both hazardous materials and terrorist incidents. Just as not all hazmat incidents are dispatched as such, not all acts of terrorism will be realized when the first call comes in.

Awareness-level hazmat training should include the competencies outlined in OSHA CFR 1910.120 (q) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 472. NFPA 472 also identifies competencies for first responders at acts of terrorism. OSHA regulations do not identify an amount of time responders must be exposed to awareness training, but rather they identify certain knowledge areas in which the responders must prove proficiency. As a result, awareness training that has been developed by various agencies ranges from four to 16 hours.

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.

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.

Responders should conduct pre-planning inspections of fixed facilities to determine what chemicals are stored and used there. First responders can also become familiar with occupancies and locations that could become the target of terrorists using hazardous materials. These might include government buildings, places where large numbers of people assemble, public transportation and infrastructure, telecommunications facilities, public utilities and historical locations.

Notification is the process of identifying additional resources needed at an incident and making the call. Notification of others is required because first responders do not have the training or equipment to mitigate the circumstances surrounding a hazmat or terrorist incident. Responders need to know who in their jurisdiction, and who outside their jurisdiction, needs to be notified when an incident occurs. The dispatcher may have the contact list and protocols to make the contacts.

Even if the only call they personally make is to the dispatcher, responders still need to be aware of the resources that will be needed to respond to the scene. Responders may want to contact the National Response Center (NRC) or CHEMTREC directly to obtain information about the chemical involved in an incident. Contact information on both agencies are located in the North American Emergency Response Guidebook, 2000 edition (ERG). The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) operates the NRC, which is a subdivision of the Department of Transportation (DOT) during peacetime. It is the contact point for federal assistance for terrorist and hazmat incidents and can be reached 24 hours a day at 800-424-8802.

If response agencies want to seek reimbursement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for expenses incurred at hazmat incidents, NRC must be contacted. EPA has a program to reimburse a single agency up to $25,000 for eligible expenses incurred during an incident that cannot be recovered from the spiller or other source. If NRC is not called soon after the incident occurs, reimbursement cannot take place. In addition to federal contact information, NRC has a chemical database and teleconferencing capability to assist responders at the incident scene.

Photo by Robert Burke
If possible, first responders should confirm the presence of hazardous materials by using clues such as placards and labels.

CHEMTREC is a 24-hour resource provided free of charge by the Chemical Manufacturers Association for responders to hazmat incidents. It can be reached at 800-424-9300. Just as NRC is the contact point for federal resources, CHEMTREC is the contact point for the private-sector chemical industry. It has an extensive library of MSDS, a chemical database, and the ability to put response agencies in touch with industry specialists and response teams.

Identification of potential hazardous material(s) can also be accomplished by the first responder, if time allows, and it can be done safely. We will talk about many identification tools available to the first responder to help identify situations where hazardous materials and terrorist agents may be present.

One of the first things the responder must be able to do at any incident scene is to determine the presence of hazardous materials. The scene should be sized up from a safe location to identify the name or hazard class of the hazardous material. This information can be obtained from the United Nations/North American four-digit identification number, the hazard class from a placard or label or a name stenciled on the product container.

First responders should be thoroughly familiar with the ERG, which may be the only resource available for hazard and response information. First responders should be able to obtain several types of information from the guidebook. These include fires, spills, leaks, first aid, personal protective equipment needed, and initial isolation and protective action distances.

Responders given a specific hazardous material should be able to determine the proper type of protective clothing required. This includes street clothing, firefighter protective clothing, SCBA and chemical protective clothing. The ERG is designed to be used during the first 30 minutes of a hazmat or terrorist incident. It also contains information for first responders on agents used during acts of terrorism. Included in the blue, yellow, orange and green sections is information about chemical and biological agents. There are also three pages in the white section of the ERG to assist first responders with information about dealing with the incident and chemical and biological agent terms in the glossary.

The ERG primarily contains generic information about hazardous materials or terrorist agents, which is organized into orange guide pages by particular product hazard. Each orange guide page contains two general types of hazard information, one section for health hazards and the other for fire and explosion hazard. Whichever one appears first on the page indicates the most severe hazard of the specific material. Information gathered by the responder to extract information from the guide pages includes four-digit identification numbers, which are found in the center of certain placards placed on bulk shipments of hazardous materials.

Photo by Robert Burke
Hazmat incidents require resources beyond the capabilities of first responders.

The yellow section of the ERG contains a numerical listing of 4-digit identification numbers. Responders match the number from the placard with the number in the yellow section and are given an orange guide page number. This orange guide page contains information about a group of similar hazardous materials.

If a four-digit identification number is not available, but the name of the chemical is known, that name can be taken to the alphabetical listing of chemicals in the blue section of the ERG. This method will also refer the responder to an orange guide page, where information is located to deal with the early stages of the incident. If no four-digit identification number or name is available, there is a placard chart in the front of the ERG that connects to orange guides for information based on the hazard class of the placard. Because the placard identifies only the hazard class, the information given in the orange guide will be much more generic than if the four-digit number or chemical name were known. If none of the above clues are available, there is one additional source of information, which may be taken to the guidebook to determine an orange guide page to use.

The 2000 ERG is the first edition of the book to include a highway trailer and railcar silhouette chart. By matching a highway container silhouette or railcar to the chart, responders may also be able to get orange guide information. But remember, since containers can haul many different types of chemicals, the information given will be even more generic than the placard information. The ERG contains a large amount of information to assist the first responder at an incident scene. It is important that all response personnel receive training on the contents and use of the guide.

Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland. He is a certified Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazmat response teams. Burke is a veteran of over 19 years in the fire service, in career and volunteer fire departments, having attained the ranks of lieutenant and assistant chief, and served as deputy state fire marshal. He has 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. He is the author of the books Hazardous Materials Chemistry For Emergency Responders, published in 1997, and Counter-Terrorism For Emergency Responders, published in 1999. Burke can be reached on the Internet at