Methylene Chloride Leak: Stoughton, WI

Major emergencies require response agencies work together. Hazardous material incidents are no different. This was evident in Stoughton, WI, on Dec. 2, 1993. While this incident was not major and no injuries were reported, it shows how well an emergency...


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Major emergencies require response agencies work together. Hazardous material incidents are no different. This was evident in Stoughton, WI, on Dec. 2, 1993. While this incident was not major and no injuries were reported, it shows how well an emergency can be mitigated when all response groups work effectively with each other.

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Photo by David F. Peterson
Entry team 2 (the author and Chuck Schwierske) overpack the second drum in the back of the van trailer.

At about 4 P.M., the Stoughton Fire Department was called to a large truck stop at the intersection of Interstate 90 and Dane County Highway N for a reported chemical leak in a parked van trailer. The chemical involved in the leak was reported to be methylene chloride, a toxic, combustible liquid that is used as an industrial solvent. As a precaution, the Madison, WI, Fire Depart-ment's Hazardous Incident Team (HIT) was also notified of the incident for research capabilities but remained in quarters. The weather was cold and clear with a slight breeze blowing from the southwest. The temperature was dropping slowly from 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Upon arrival, Stoughton firefighters learned from the truck's driver that two 55-gallon drums of methylene chloride had been damaged when pallets of heavy machined parts shifted and fell on them. Fortunately, the two drums were the last to be loaded in the rear of the 40 foot van trailer. The driver identified a leak in the area of the drums when he noticed a liquid leaking out of the back of the trailer but he did not open the doors. The trailer bore a new U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) placard that was white with lettering that said, "Do Not Store Near Foodstuff." He immediately notified the truck stop management of the emergency. The Stoughton Fire Department effected immediate site control by moving the parked vehicles from around the van trailer. After the paved area was cleared, members stretched plastic hazard tape upwind and downwind of the trailer to secure the "hot zone," the area of possible danger or contamination.

The Stoughton incident commander (IC) requested the assistance of the Madison HIT and the Dane County Sheriff's Department. The Wisconsin State Patrol also assisted.

In Dane County, a fire department can request the Madison HIT unit for help in handling hazmat incidents through a pre-arranged contract. It operates similar to mutual aid agreements and is renewed annually. When summoned, the Madison HIT responds to the scene and manages all hot zone functions under the local IC's system. The HIT leader advises the IC of the HIT's needs and tactics. A Madison chief officer responds with the HIT to serve as a liaison between the team and the IC.

Specially Trained Team

The HIT is a specialized unit formed in 1987 in response to the hazardous material threat within the community. The team is made up of personnel trained to the technician level as specified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regulations and standards. Many members have attained specialist ratings (OSHA) through additional training.

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Photo by David F. Peterson
The Stoughton Fire Department light truck illuminates the scene for workers in the trailer.

Technicians are trained to safely enter contaminated or hot zones with monitoring instruments and perform control operations to handle product releases. Hazardous material operations are highly complex and inherently dangerous, so they require a system where work groups of two are monitored by back-up work groups, in case of an emergency, and a sector officer. On the Madison team, the sector officer is referred to as the HIT leader.

The HIT leader also appoints a safety officer to monitor site safety conditions, a research officer to conduct chemical research, and a decontamination officer to make sure the decontamination corridor is properly set up and ready before anyone enters the hot zone. Paramedics are also assigned to check the health status of emergency personnel before they enter a hot zone.

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