Preparing Dispatchers For Hazmat & Terrorist Emergencies

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...


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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.