Hazmat Size-Up

Dan Pontecorvo offers first responders six clues to help detect hazardous materials.


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...


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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.

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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.

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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.

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