Preparing Dispatchers For Hazmat & Terrorist Emergencies

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Dispatchers and 911 operators are usually the first to receive notification of any type of emergency that occurs in the community. They may be talking with the person who is a victim of an incident, a witness to what happened or even the perpetrator. Callers can provide valuable information to assist emergency responders. Dispatchers and 911 operators should be trained to provide extract appropriate information from callers.

The Right Questions

Nearly every fire and EMS response has the potential for hazardous materials to be present. Call takers should use their knowledge and training to determine, based on the caller's information, more specific information about hazardous materials that may be present. Call takers should routinely ask questions about the presence of hazardous materials when emergency calls come in. This includes traffic accidents, industrial accidents, EMS calls and fires. Training should further prepare call takers to provide assistance to emergency responders when dealing with hazmat, terrorist or threat incidents. (Threat incidents include bomb threats, anthrax threats or any other type threat involving explosive, chemical or biological materials.)

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Photo by Robert Burke
Any emergency response has the potential to be a hazardous materials incident. Emergency responders and dispatchers must train for the worst.

Through training, dispatchers will develop a better understanding of the type of information that is important to response personnel. They will also understand terminology used by response personnel and be able to provide a higher level of assistance based on their increased level of knowledge.

Training Is A Must

Hazmat, terrorist and threat incidents are very technical by nature. Training will help increase the awareness level of dispatchers and 911 operators when these incidents occur. The information provided in this article is applicable to fire, police and EMS dispatchers.

Subject areas that should be covered in a dispatcher/911 operator training course include an introduction to hazmat incidents and acts of terrorism. Information should include hazmat and terrorist awareness; hints to the presence of hazmat or terrorist incidents; locations where such incidents may occur; recognizing signs and symptoms from victims; and the types of information to gather from the caller to be helpful for response personnel.

Every community should have a plan for dealing with hazmat releases or terrorist incidents. Call takers should be thoroughly familiar with the plan and know when and how to implement it if needed. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) based on the community emergency plan and dispatch operations should be developed for day-to-day use. SOPs should cover call screening, initial dispatch, when the plan is activated, who is in charge, hazmat references, dealing with the media and dispatcher duties. SOPs should clearly define the role of the dispatcher during a hazmat or terrorist incident.

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Photo by Robert Burke
Information gathered by emergency dispatchers can be valuable to responders on scene in determining hazards and what has happened.

Dispatchers and 911 operators should keep the caller on the line as long as possible to obtain information to pass on to emergency responders. Initial dispatch protocols should include proper resources, weather conditions, information about the hazard or threat, and concise information about what may have happened and what the conditions are at the present time.

Call takers will have numerous duties and responsibilities during a hazmat or terrorist incident. They do not end with the dispatch of emergency responders. Dispatchers should have access to reference materials, including the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). Other important references include the Condensed Chemical Dictionary, the NIOSH Guide and the Bureau of Explosives Railroad Book.

Dispatchers who obtain the proper information or fail to recognize when the potential for hazardous materials or terrorism is present can mean the difference between a successful outcome and a disaster. Fire departments respond to many emergency medical calls on a daily basis. Dispatchers and 911 operators should be alert for unusual events. Multiple medical calls from different locations or multiple victims exhibiting similar symptoms may indicate an unusual problem. A mass-casualty incident where no trauma has occurred is also unusual and should be recognized by the dispatcher as an unusual event. A report of an explosion with little damage is also a "red flag."

News Media Responses

Call takers should be familiar with information that would indicate a potential terrorist incident. News media listen to dispatch frequencies to get a heads-up on emergency incidents in the community. Dispatchers should be prepared to field calls from the media about what has happened, the local response, any deaths or injuries, whether an evacuation is taking place and whether anyone in the community is threatened.

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Photo by Robert Burke
Emergency dispatchers who are knowledgeable about identification tools such as placards, labels, and container shapes and sizes can ask questions that will elicit valuable information from callers.

The location of an event can be helpful information in terms of potential exposures and response difficulties. Is the emergency a transportation event or is a fixed facility involved? Call takers should extract as much information as possible about the location and surrounding exposures, topography, rural vs. urban setting, population exposures etc. Time of day or day of week can be important in terms of weather stability, effect on vapor clouds, traffic flow and population densities. Did the incident just happen, or was there a delay in reporting? Are multiple calls about the incident or multiple calls with different locations being received? What type of event occurred - fire, explosion, vehicle accident, medical emergency, natural disaster, criminal act, act of terrorism or chemical release?

Fires can result in explosions, and explosions can cause fires. If an explosion has occurred, a secondary device could be present. The dispatcher should alert responders to potential secondary devices. Natural disasters as well as criminal and terrorist acts can result in the release of hazardous materials. Once again, the information the call taker extracts from the person reporting the incident is critical in determining what has occurred. Incidents involving hazardous materials can be accidental or criminal acts. Terrorist events are almost always criminal acts.

How the incident happened can provide responders with information about what they may face when they arrive. Was the incident an accident or was it intentional? Incidents can also happen as a result of negligence.

Developing plans, SOPs and providing training for dispatchers are key if an incident outcome is to be successful. The role of the dispatcher is critical and should not be overlooked or underestimated. Identifying incident levels can assist responders and dispatchers in determining what resources will be required to handle an incident:

  • Level I incidents are small scale and may be handled by the first responders with one company. It is not likely evacuation will be necessary and injuries are unlikely unless it is a vehicle accident.
  • Level II incidents are larger, requiring multiple companies, the hazmat team and, depending on the department's size, mutual aid. Evacuations or sheltering in place is likely to occur. There may be injuries or even deaths.
  • Level III incidents are catastrophic community emergencies. They are well beyond the local ability to deal with them. Large evacuations will be likely and may be for an extended period of time. State and federal resources may be required. Injuries and deaths are likely.

Resource Contacts

Developing resource contacts for various incident levels can streamline the notification process. Once an incident has been identified as a hazmat or terrorist incident, responders should request the resources needed to bring the emergency safely under control. Dispatchers will be making the notifications and should have SOPs and copies of local emergency plans in order to contact the appropriate resources. Those agencies that need to be notified should be outlined in the plan. These include local, state and federal agencies and private industry.

Local emergency plans and SOPs should determine who gets called based on the level of incident identified by the dispatcher from the initial call or first-arriving emergency responders. The plan should include organization or agency name, emergency contact phone number, and contact information for state and federal resources.

Information needed to make notifications for a hazmat incident can be placed into three general categories: organization/agency; emergency response telephone number; and resources available. Local and state notifications vary depending on the jurisdiction and its resources. Local and state departments of environment as well as health departments may need to be called. National notifications include CHEMTREC, a service of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, which can be contacted 24 hours a day at 800-424-9300. CHEMTREC is the contact point for industry, the shipper and the manufacturer.

If the material spilled is a marine pollutant, or if oil products are spilled on the water, the National Response Center (NRC) should be notified. The NRC is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The NRC is the notification, communications, technical assistance and coordination center for the National Response Team (NRT). The NRC can provide chemical information much like CHEMTREC through its OM-TADS database. It is also the contact point to obtain federal assistance for hazmat incidents.

If jurisdictions plan to seek reimbursement at any time under the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reimbursement program, they must notify the NRC within 24 hours of the incident. The 24-hour emergency number for the NRC is 800-424-8802. The NRC should also be contacted to report chemical or biological terrorist attacks. Page 380 of the ERG provides information day or night on emergencies involving military shipments. Two contact numbers are provided: for explosives or ammunition incidents call 703-697-0218 (collect calls are accepted); all other dangerous goods incidents should be referred to 800-851-8061. These numbers are for emergencies only. The regional EPA response team, the Coast Guard, hazmat teams and others identified locally also should be notified.

Fixed facilities that have reportable quantities of extremely hazardous substances must have a facility emergency plan with 24-hour emergency contact numbers. This information can be obtained from the local emergency planning committee (LEPC). Other facilities may be contacted or pre-planned to obtain afterhours emergency contact information.

Call takers should have a level of hazardous materials and terrorist incident knowledge that approaches the first responder awareness level. There are many clues, which can assist the call taker in extracting the appropriate information from an emergency call.

Much can be determined by the occupancy or use of a building or location. General knowledge of building use can help call takers determine if hazardous materials may be present. Knowledge of the DOT placarding and labeling system; NFPA 704 and other marking systems; transportation and fixed-facility containers; ERG and other references; shipping papers; Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS); and locations and indicators that a terrorist incident may have occurred, are all critical for the emergency call taker.

Recognizing Terrorism

Unlike hazmat incidents, there are few if any obvious clues as to the occurrence of a terrorist act. Call takers will need to be aware of the types of buildings and locations that may be terrorist targets. Terrorists may also target high-profile events such as fairs and community celebrations, or any event where large numbers of people may gather.

Terrorists have also used attacks to commemorate a controversial event that has occurred previously. The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City occurred two years to the day of the Waco, TX, siege, which ended in the deaths of more than 80 people. Dispatchers should be aware of on-scene indicators that could indicate that a terrorist act has occurred. Victims may be the primary clue as to what has happened. Be alert for unusual symptoms and incidents where there are mass casualties without signs of trauma.

Terrorists are looking for targets that are vulnerable. Locations where little preparation or security is provided "soft targets" are prime locations for terrorism. Terrorists look for public and government buildings, those with law enforcement or Internal Revenue Service offices, infrastructure such as power plants, tunnels and bridges, water treatment plants and hospitals, to name a few. Places with high economic impact, such as university research or medical facilities, financial institutions, the stock market or commodities exchange could be targets. Telecommunications facilities, transmission towers, mass transit systems, and places with historical or symbolic significance may also be targeted.

Government agencies provide critical services to the public, water supply, electricity in some cases, emergency services, environmental protection, heath services, and many others. Much of our infrastructure is government related, constructed or maintained. There are many government buildings including schools, legislative, and administrative offices the terrorist may take issue with. Not all government agencies are popular; court systems, tax collection, probation, and others could be targeted.

"Decision Trees"

Hazmat and terrorist incidents do not happen on a regular basis. Call takers may become rusty with procedures because of lack of use. "Decision trees" (or flow charts, as they are sometimes called) can be useful in helping dispatchers determine what resources are needed and what questions too ask of the caller. Decision trees are excellent tools for assisting dispatchers in determining what resources to allocate to an emergency call. They differ from one community to another depending on the local resources.

A decision tree starts with a decision that needs to be made. In the case of emergency response, it is what resources need to be dispatched for certain types of hazardous materials and terrorist incidents.

Decision tree construction steps are:

  1. Determine decision to be made.
  2. Ask questions that will lead to a decision.
  3. Describe actions that will take place.
  4. Determine when the process has ended.

Decisions may also be determining what type of incident has occurred. Decision trees can be constructed to assist the call taker in determining if a hazardous material is present or if a terrorist incident has occurred.

In order to come to any appropriate decision, you need to ask the proper questions. Take the time to make sure the questions asked would lead to the answer you are looking for. If not, you will need to revise the questions. Questions should eventually lead to actions. Based upon the information you collect from the caller and feed into the decision tree, you should be able to come up with an appropriate determination of the type of emergency and dispatch the appropriate resources. While this may all sound complicated, it's easy once you work through a few sample decision trees.

Prepared checklists can also be useful in prompting for information to ask the caller. No one can remember all of the right things to ask. Having a checklist expedites the call taking while still obtaining the information that will benefit the emergency responders. Taking calls for hazardous materials and terrorist incidents can be remarkably different.

The use of decision trees and checklists can be beneficial for dispatchers in determining what questions to ask of the caller. Call takers should get detailed information concerning the location or facility where an incident has taken place. Even if hazardous materials are not involved in an incident, response personnel should know if there are hazardous materials on the scene or in the facility. The dispatcher has the first and best opportunity to obtain this information through the questions he or she asks. Even if the presence of hazardous materials cannot be confirmed, the dispatcher should remind responders of the potential and to be on the lookout. If possible, the caller should be asked to wait at a certain location to meet responders. First-hand information from the caller can confirm information forwarded by the dispatcher.

Real Threat Or Hoax?

Generally, threat incidents are hoaxes and no bomb, chemical, biological or nuclear material is found. If anything is found, it turns out to be a benign material or device. Just the same, incidents have occurred involving explosive materials or devices where the device or material was real and an explosion occurred.

All threats should be taken seriously and responded to according to local emergency plans. Over 70% of all terrorist incidents involve explosives or explosive devices. Some of the important procedures for the call taker to follow include:

  • Listen.
  • Be calm and courteous.
  • Do not interrupt the caller.
  • Obtain as much information as possible.
  • Initiate call-trace action.

The caller may be the person who placed the bomb, someone who knows the bomber or a witness to the device. Gathering information about the caller can help identify that person. It is important that the call taker identify as much information about the caller as possible. Information should include: sex; estimated age; accent; voice volume; speech; diction; and manner.

Nuclear threats, especially bombs, do not have a lot of credibility. The U.S. Department of Energy operates a Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), headquartered at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, which should be called, in addition to the FBI, for any nuclear threat.

Anthrax threats have become the bomb threat of the 21st century. Threats have included: telephone calls; mailed letters and packages; items left in buildings; powder left on building surfaces and air handling systems; and notes written on walls. Anthrax is a biological agent that could be used by terrorists to further their cause. Because anthrax is such a credible threat, all reports should be taken seriously. Response should be within local guidelines for anthrax threats. However, consideration should be given to FBI guidelines, which suggest a low-key response.

Every one of the dozens of anthrax threats that have occurred across the country has been a hoax. Nonetheless, response personnel were tied up for hours; businesses were disrupted; traffic was disrupted; citizens underwent decontamination; antibiotics were administered to "victims"; and the cost to taxpayers was in the tens of thousands of dollars. The threat of anthrax is real, but the terrorist does not have to have anthrax to cause disruption of the daily lives of citizens and create fear among the population; just saying you have anthrax can further the cause of a terrorist.

A big lesson learned from the anthrax hoaxes is to avoid overreacting. Evacuation of large numbers of people may not be necessary if the material is not in an air-handling system. Anthrax is not contagious from person to person, so quarantine is not required. All emergency responders should wear respiratory protection. Decontamination is only done for the peace of mind of those near the material. Only soap and water should be used, not chlorine bleaches. Antibiotics should not be administered unless there is a positive test result for anthrax. Samples of the material should be taken and submitted to a laboratory for testing.

Nearly every fire, EMS and law enforcement response has the potential for hazardous materials to be present. Terrorism incidents occur on a less frequent basis, but can present challenges to the emergency response system nonetheless. Call takers should use their knowledge and training to determine, based on the caller's information, more specific information about hazardous materials and terrorist agents, which may be present. This information should be passed on to emergency responders to assist them in the mitigation of the incident. Working together, call takers and emergency responders play a critical role in determining the successful outcome of hazmat and terrorist emergencies.


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 18 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 robert.burke@worldnet.att.net.

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