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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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.

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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.