Do You Have an Emergency Involving Chemicals? CHEMTREC Celebrates 30 Years of Service

CHEMTREC, the Chemical Transportation Emergency Center, began operations on Sept. 5, 1971. CHEMTREC is a 24-hour emergency center that was started as a service of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), now known as the American Chemistry Council. The first center was located in downtown Washington, D.C. It is now located across the Potomac River in Arlington, VA.

In addition to its chemical emergency call center, CHEMTREC provides training programs, MEDTREC (for chemical medical information), Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and CHEMNET, an industry chemical emergency mutual aid system.

Emergency Call Center

CHEMTREC provides emergency chemical information to emergency responders nationwide. Its primary mission "is to provide technical information about products involved, guidance on how to protect themselves and the public, and what initial action is required to mitigate the incident." CHEMTREC strives to provide this and other information quickly and accurately 24 hours a day. Managing Director Carl Reynolds is available to answer questions at 703-741-5524.

Photo by Robert Burke
CHEMTREC can fax Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to an incident scene for immediate use by emergency responders.

Emergency response organizations do not have to be registered with CHEMTREC to use its services. Information and assistance are provided free of charge as a public service to emergency response organizations.

Recent expansions of the center have taken place due to increased call volume. Additional staff has been added along with new technology to support operations. Backup power is provided for the center and protocols are in place for relocating the center in an emergency. One call to 800-424-9300 can put responders in touch with the company that manufactured a chemical, the shipper, provide MSDS, activate, and send a chemical company or industry mutual aid hazmat response team to the scene. CHEMTREC can also provide on-scene responders with information on over one million chemicals. Procedures are in place for calls originating from non-English-speaking callers. Specialized assistance from chemists can be obtained from its extensive database of chemical industry contacts. Emergency collect calls are accepted, and all calls are recorded.

In the beginning, CHEMTREC Communicators, as they were called, were merely conveyers of information. Many were former military personnel who were recruited because of their ability to keep cool during crises. Chemical data was kept in a sophisticated card file system and the Communicator would read the information on the card with little if any additional input. They were not required to have any expertise in the areas of hazardous materials or emergency response.

Photo by Robert Burke
The CHEMTREC emergency call center in Arlington, VA, provides 24-hour information concerning hazardous materials.

Today's version of the Communicator is the Emergency Services Specialist (ESS), highly trained and qualified in hazardous materials and emergency response. ESS personnel come from the emergency services with experience in emergency response, firefighting, emergency medical services, military emergencies and related fields. The old card file system has been replaced with a computerized database and Emergency Services Specialists provide additional information and recommendations based on their knowledge and experience dealing with hazmat emergencies.

CHEMTREC can provide technical information directly to the scene of a hazmat incident, including faxed information and MSDS from its 2.8 million-document library. CHEMTREC also provides information to emergency medical personnel concerning chemical exposure treatment. ESS personnel gather information about the incident, product and exposure, then provide medical treatment information from the MSDS.

CHEMTREC can also link medical personnel at the emergency room with medical specialists from the shipper or PROSAR, an information company providing health, safety and toxicology consulting with 24-hour access. (Additional information about PROSAR can be obtained on the web at

In order for CHEMTREC to provide information to the response scene in a timely manner, responders must gather and have available information needed by CHEMTREC before making a call to them. The following is some of the information needed.

  • Caller's name and rank or title.
  • Caller's company or organization.
  • Caller's location.
  • At least one callback number, with the area code.
  • Dispatch center number, if available.
  • Fax number.
  • Location of incident/weather conditions.
  • Time incident occurred.
  • Type or description of container/package.
  • Container numbers and /or markings.
  • Brief description of incident and actions taken.
  • Number and type of injuries/exposures.
  • Amount of product(s) involved and released.
  • Is there specific information needed as a priority?
  • Are any industry representatives on the scene or have any been contacted?

If shipping papers have been obtained, the following additional information is requested by CHEMTREC:

  • UN/NA Identification Number, (Placard) or STCC number of the products.
  • Chemical name, product(s) name or, a trade name.
  • Carrier name.
  • Shipper and point of origin.
  • Consignee and destination.

Not all of the incidents received by CHEMTREC are massive train derailments or tank truck accidents. As many as 50% of the incidents called into the emergency center involve five gallons or less of product. Below are examples of two typical and one unusual incident handled by the call center. (Sample CHEMTREC incidents are from the User's Guide for Emergency Responders.)

Photo by Robert Burke
A card file system was used when CHEMTREC opened in 1971.

Incident 1 - CHEMTREC received a call from a railroad reporting a train derailment. The report stated that six cars containing sulfuric acid and two empty cars that had carried naphtha/xylene mixture and silicon tetrachloride were involved. An unknown amount of product was reported to be leaking from the rail cars. Adverse weather conditions in the area were hampering response and evaluation of the incident. CHEMTREC faxed MSDS, then discussed the situation with the local fire department and the nearest poison control center. CHEMTREC also conferenced the shippers with the fire department and railroad representatives.

Incident 2 - The trucking company dispatcher called in to report that an unknown product was leaking out from the trailer at a truck stop in Arizona. The local fire department was notified and contacted CHEMTREC for assistance identifying the products in the trailer. As there were multiple shippers' products on board, CHEMTREC asked that the bill of lading be faxed to the Emergency Call Center. The shipping papers received indicated that two shippers were involved, shipping hydrofluoric acid solutions and ethylene glycol. The ESS contacted each shipper, requesting contact with the reporting carrier's dispatcher. In turn, shippers called back to advice that their respective emergency coordinators had made contact and that product information had been supplied to responders.

Incident 3 - While the author was visiting CHEMTREC to obtain information for this column, a call was received from a state National Guard and logged by an ESS. An auctioneer found a container marked as chemical weapon gas. The container was also marked "Manufactured by Lake Erie Chemical." A bomb squad had already entered the building and was able to view the container. The container was described as a plastic cylindrical object approximately 15 inches in length. There were two silver vials inside with a percussion cap. There was a brown opaque liquid in the vials. Cotton padding was in place between the two vials. The container was marked as "Lot 2250."

The ESS researched Internet websites to obtain the following information, which was sent on to the National Guard. During the 1930s, the Lake Erie Chemical Company, based in Cleveland, developed a system to discharge tear gas into bank lobbies during holdups. This was done in conjunction with a company called Diebold, which was run by Elliot Ness, of "The Untouchables" fame. Lake Erie Chemical also manufactured flare pistols. One of the items in the tube was described as having a percussion cap on its base. CHEMTREC advised the National Guard of the strong possibility that the item was a dispensing unit that may contain tear gas. The item was collected and secured for disposal by the local bomb squad.

Assistance For Responders

Shipping paper emergency contact information. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires that a shipper of hazardous materials provide a 24-hour emergency contact number at the top of all shipping papers. If a company does not have the capability of providing this type of contact, CHEMTREC can contract with the company and provide the emergency contact service. Therefore, some shipping papers will have the CHEMTREC 24-hour emergency number at the top for emergency contact information. Others will have a number directly connected to the shipper or manufacturer. Response personnel should use the shipper or manufacturer number first, if provided, before contacting CHEMTREC.

CHEMNET. The chemical industry has established a mutual aid network, CHEMNET, to provide emergency and technical information to the scene of hazmat incidents involving their products. Mutual aid teams are made up of chemical industry teams and for-hire contractors. Companies, which have limited response resources, can participate in the CHEMNET program.

Photo by Robert Burke
Today, 2.8 million Material Safety Data Sheets are stored in modern computer databases.

CHEMNET is available 24 hours a day and is activated through CHEMTREC. Activation occurs when the Emergency Call Center advises a subscriber company that one of its products has been involved in an accident. If response to the scene cannot be accomplished in a reasonable time, a CHEMNET response team closest to the scene can be activated. The CHEMNET program is only available to shippers and distributors registered with CHEMTREC, but may be implemented to assist emergency responders.

MSDS system. CHEMTREC has one of the largest databases of Material Safety Data Sheets in the world. Over 2.8 million documents are available and can be faxed to emergency response personnel on scene of a hazmat incident. The MSDS system at CHEMTREC was recently upgraded to allow for better management and quicker retrieval of documents during an emergency. Information can be faxed directly to the incident scene. Response personnel should identify the location of the nearest fax machine and provide the number to CHEMTREC in order to receive information.

Training programs. The American Chemistry Council and CHEMTREC provide training programs to assist emergency responders. One-week workshops provide hands-on training for mitigation of incidents involving tank trucks, rail cars and other containers. Subjects covered include tank car specialist, advanced tank car specialist, highway emergency response specialist, hazmat technician, advanced technician and hazmat incident commander. Workshops are conducted at the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, CO, at a cost of $950 to emergency responders. Students are responsible for their own transportation and lodging arrangements. Further information can be obtained by calling 703-741-5131.

Participation in drills and exercises. Through prior arrangement, CHEMTREC will participate in local hazmat drills and exercises. Using the Emergency Call Center during a drill or exercise can help emergency responders to better understand the resources and services available during an actual emergency. Participation by product shippers or manufacturers may also be arranged for specific chemicals.

MSDS for materials involved in a drill or exercise can be obtained prior to the event by contacting CHEMTREC's non-emergency number. Request forms for CHEMTREC participation are available by calling 800-262-8200 or downloading from the website. The fax number is 703-741-6090 and the e-mail address is Completed forms should be faxed or e-mailed at least 48 hours prior to the drill or 10 days prior for regular mail. Mail should be sent to CHEMTREC Emergency Call Center, 1300 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209-2380. Call 703-741-5525 at least one day in advance of the drill to confirm that the registration was received.

CHEMTREC newsletter. A quarterly newsletter is published by CHEMTREC and can be received by mail or in electronic format. The newsletter is loaded with information on current training, conferences, and other events, Emergency Call Center news, and other programs. Geared towards industry members, it still contains valuable information for emergency responders. The newsletter is available to emergency response organizations. Contact Jane Schanke at 703-741-5501.

CHEMTREC website. Additional information about CHEMTREC operations and services can be obtained at its website, A section of the site is dedicated to emergency responders. This site was improved and updated recently to better meet the needs of users. Current information is provided on training opportunities, regulation changes, reports and other articles of interest for emergency responders. Helpful links to other hazmat sites are provided along with frequently asked questions.

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 has done post-graduate work in public administration. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville campus. 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