Hazmat Size-Up

As the number of hazardous materials on the fireground grows, so does the concern for safety. There is an increasing demand for more training, better equipment, new procedures and more knowledge to help protect firefighters.

Photo by Steve Silverman
After a tree-spraying truck overturned in Huntington, NY, three fiberglass tanks disengaged and leaked approximately 700 gallons of a chemical-and-water mixture along with granular chemicals.

First responders must understand and recognize the importance of the identification process in a hazmat response, so that exposure and harm can be reduced and the proper tactical procedures implemented.

The single most important action to take for a hazmat response is identification. It is only after recognizing and identifying hazardous materials and its characteristics that actions can or cannot be taken. The identification process must come before rescue operations and control action are initiated.

Every alarm must be considered a possible hazmat incident. If possible, approach uphill and upwind from the incident. Responders must be aware of the unexpected; a situation may appear to pose no threat or unexpected danger but what appears to be may not be the case. From a safe distance, scene safety is strongly advised, utilizing all available resources. The number-one priority is the first responder!

"Operations Level" Response

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines "operations-level" responders as those "who respond to releases, or potential releases, as part of the initial response to protect people, environment and property." Operations-level personnel in a hazmat response take defensive actions rather than trying to stop the releases. Their function is to confine the releases from a safe distance, keep it from spreading and prevent exposure.

Offensive operations, such as interior firefighting, are not appropriate when they place firefighters near hazards or when a significant change in incident conditions is likely to occur. A standardized, cautious approach enables firefighters to respond safely and effectively. The operations-level response requires the following objectives: identification, notifications, securing of area and confinement.

An effective response is based on the competency (knowledge and skill) of the responders. OSHA requires that yearly refresher training be provided to maintain the competency level of all first responders.

Six Identification Clues

The six hazmat size-up clues will provide first responders with a systematic, common-sense approach to detecting hazardous materials. They are listed in a priority order of identification of hazardous materials from the safest to the most dangerous.

Photo by Steven Eisen
Hazmat teams from agencies in five counties remained on-scene for 15 hours after a three-truck accident in Frederick, MD, in which 3,000 gallons of fuel oil were spilled.

1. Occupancy and location. The occupancy and/or location of a site is the critical first size-up clue to a hazmat incident. An initial response via dispatch message or signal will alert the first responders with information regarding the occupancy. The occupancy can be a fixed facility in a residential, commercial or industrial setting; a location that may be a known or unknown to responders; or a general area ranging from a major highway or cross street to a tunnel, bridge, river or other waterway.

It is during building field inspections that valuable information and clues can be recognized, thus providing first responders with the how, why, what, where and who factors regarding hazards or conditions that may be encountered. During a walk-through inspection, first responders not only must be alert to potential conditions or problems but also observe a facility's auxiliary foam or deluge systems, dikes, barriers and other appurtenances that could provide supplemental support in mitigation operations. They also should meet with the on-site personnel who would be able to provide specialized information in an emergency.

Hazmat incidents frequently occur not in fixed facilities but in locations where dangerous conditions could be encountered major highways, busy intersections, railroad crossings, tunnels, bridges, or areas where topography and access are vulnerable exposures. The additional factors for considerations are remote access and egress, water availabilities and weather variables.

Once these locations are identified, first responders can develop pre-emergency plans and set up familiarization drills with neighboring fire departments, as well as with local, state or federal jurisdictions. Cooperation and coordination must come together among the various and responsible agencies for communications to exist.

2. Container shape and size. The sizes and shapes of hazardous materials containers are the distinguishing features and characteristics used in transportation (bulk or non-bulk) and fixed facilities (bulk or non-bulk). Many common shapes and sizes for hazardous materials containers are easily recognizable in tank trucks (bulk), internodal (bulk), rail containers (bulk), bulk- storage tank farms (bulk), pipelines (bulk), drums (non-bulk), cylinders (non-bulk), drums (non-bulk), etc., and many of them are regulated by federal law.

The shape of a container cylindrical, elliptical, sphere, horseshoe or rounded-end can help identify the characteristics of the material inside, its state of matter (solid, liquid or gas); and whether it is under pressure, cryogenic, heated, acidic, alkaline, poisonous, biological, explosive, radioactive or any combination.

Photo by Steve Silverman
The Huntington, NY, accident involving an overturned tree-spraying truck required the response of the Huntington Manor Fire Department, Huntington Community First Aid Squad and Suffolk County police.


Photo by Steve Silverman
The truck driver suffered head and internal injuries.


3. Placards and labels. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations governing the transportation of hazardous materials defines and classifies hazardous commodities according to their nature and their hazards presented in transportation. Familiarity with the DOT system is essential to first responders because placards and labels can describe the hazardous material's primary and/or secondary hazards:

  • Color (for example, red = flammables/combustibles).
  • Visual symbol (flame = fire).
  • Hazard name (flammable/combustible).
  • Class number (3 = liquid).
  • Four-digit identification number (1993 = fuel oil, a combustible liquid).

DOT placards are diamond in shape (measuring 103/4 inches square), and generally are affixed on each side and each end of truck and rail containers (bulk packages). Placards generally indicate the primary hazard. First responders must be aware that every placard and label may have secondary hazards associating with them and may not be noted on containers; example toluene a flammable liquid (hazard class 3) also has potential explosive and inhalation hazards.


Under the DOT's Code of Federal Regulations, Chart 10 (above), certain classes of hazardous materials must ALWAYS be placarded with their primary hazard placards, regardless of the amount being transported.

The exception to the rule is the "DANGEROUS" placard. This placard indicates a "mixed load" of two or more hazardous materials (from Table 2) with a gross weight of 1,001 pounds or more.

DOT labels are diamond-shaped, measuring four-by-four inches, and are affixed to packages on the same surface and near the marked proper shipping name of a non-bulk shipments (for example, drums, cylinders, boxes, etc.).

If a hazardous material meets the Code of Federal Register (CFR)172.101 definition of more than one hazard class, it must be placarded and/or labeled with a subsidiary hazard class. The rule indicates that the primary hazard will have the hazard class number on bottom of placard and/or label and its subsidiary hazard will not have the hazard class number.

In addition, many of the hazardous materials that are poisonous by inhalation (PIH) are "highlighted" in the 1996 North American Emergency Response Guidebook (issued by the DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration, Transport Canada Safety and Security/Dangerous Goods, and the Mexican Secretariat of Transport and Communications). For example, for sulphuric acid, fuming , the primary hazard indicated is "CORROSIVE" and the secondary hazard is "POISON." Primary hazard placards and/or labels can be distinguished from subsidiary hazards by noticing the hazard class number on the bottom and a warning sign for example, "INHALATION HAZARD" is posted adjacent to both the primary and subsidiary hazards markings.

4. Markings and colors. The next clue, markings and colors, indicates company names, logos, trademarks, trade names and colors that can provide first responders with vital information about the presence of hazardous materials. For example the red and white stripes used to mark rail tank cars carrying hydrocyanic acid are now an industry standard indicating "POISONOUS."

In addition, markings such as NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 704 or Hazardous Communication color bar-type labels affixed to fixed facilities, on exteriors or interiors, and sometimes on non-bulk packages will alert first responders to the dangers associated with various hazardous materials handled or used at a specific location.

These hazard markings will indicate degree of danger posed by a particular hazardous material but will not indicate its quantity or its location at the site. This system is not used in transportation and is not federally required; however, local jurisdiction may request the use of this system at fixed sites.

In addition, markings such as vehicle identification numbers (VINs), license plates and stencils may assist in tracing a product back to the source or origin. It also is possible that a company's product specialist could provide more detailed information on the characteristics and properties of the material being stored or used.

Other marking considerations used by OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the military can provide clues to help first responders identify hazardous materials. Colors on cylinders may not necessarily denote the hazard class; all that is required for cylinders is label notations.

5. Shipping and facility documents. The type of shipping documents that accompany hazardous materials will depend on the mode of transportation.


Shipping papers are vital documents that provide the names of the shipper and co-signee, product name, DOT product identification number, class number, quantity and type of packages, reportable quantity (or RQ, the amount of a material that, when spilled, must be reported to National Response Center), emergency contact telephone number and Packing Group (PG) degree of danger via poison inhalation hazard PG I, great; PG II, medium; and PG III, minor. The Packing Group hazard classifications are noted on Chart 10 (see page 50). Shipping documents, however, may not be accessible to first responders if a vehicle is burning or hazardous materials are involved.

A facility document called a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is a manufacturer's summary of a product's potential hazards. Under the Hazard Communication Rule (OSHA's Right-to-Know Laws), for any hazardous substance that is manufactured, stored or used the MSDS must be filed on the premises or provided to buyers, consumers or employees. For a hazardous materials that is being shipped for the first time, the MSDS must accompany the shipment.

The MSDS is like a crystal ball; it provides product specifics hazards and proper use and handling:

  • Product identification.
  • Hazardous components and ingredients.
  • Physical data.
  • Health and toxicity data.
  • Fire and explosion data.
  • Reactivity data.
  • Spill/disposal procedures.
  • Protective equipment.
  • Storage/handling precautions.
  • Transportation data.

These data sheets may look different from one another; OSHA requires no specific format but does mandate the above 10 components.

The MSDS can provide first responders with vital information that could be utilized in the decision- making process during emergency operations. The MSDS is the most reliable source of health information on the product. It is important to point out that any pre-plan decisions and procedures should be based upon information on a material's MSDS. If possible, the inclusion of the MSDS information and or location should also be incorporated in the dispatching messages.

If shipping and facility documents and the MSDS for a hazardous material are not accessible, another resource or guide is the 1996 North American Emergency Response Guidebook. It is the primarily guide to aid first responders in quickly identifying the specific or generic hazards of materials. The guidebook, however, is only a guide and is not to be considered as a substitute for emergency response training, knowledge or sound judgment.

First responders at the scene of a hazmat incident, should seek additional information about any material in question as soon as possible and they should never hesitate to call a hazmat response unit for assistance.

6. Senses. Your senses of touch, taste and smell should NEVER be used to detect or identify hazardous materials. Your sense of sight can detect clues such as container shape, placards, markings, names or license plate numbers and your sense of hearing may lead you to the source of gas or vapor escaping from a cylinder but you may be dangerously too close to the hazardous material. And if you are too close, you are probably exposed and may also be contaminated. Though you should note anything unusual that you see, hear, smell or experience, you should also avoid further exposure.

First responders must be alert to any indications of unusual conditions the death of vegetation or fish, for example. Do not assume that gases or vapors are harmless if they are outdoors or lack an odor; odorless and colorless vapors may be harmful. (This last clue could also be listed as "common sense.")


Hazmat emergencies are fraught with danger. Familiarity with the hazmat recognition and identification processes is an essential skill for all responders. The accepted method of initiating operations at most incidents has been to take aggressive action aimed toward eliminating the hazard and removing trapped occupants. In today's environment, first responders must sometimes modify their response tactics. Remember, hazmat response begins with identification!

Dan Pontecorvo is a lieutenant and 19-year veteran in the FDNY. He has eight years' experience as a hazmat technician/specialist and is a hazmat operations training officer assigned to the department's Bureau of Training. Pontecorvo is an adjunct professor at John Jay College, and holds a master's degree in fire protection management from John Jay and a master's degree in industrial engineering from Pratt Institute.