HazMat Response; Avoiding the Chicken Little Syndrome

The Chicken Little Syndrome can be observed at many hazardous materials incidents across the country. It is hard to blame those who employ the practice as they are merely products of their training but there is a better way!


The Chicken Little Syndrome can be observed at many hazardous materials incidents across the country. It is hard to blame those who employ the practice as they are merely products of their training but there is a better way! Responders can learn to gear their response to the situation through effective training and by learning new risk assessment techniques while maintaining their safety and being efficient.

"If you don't know, don't go, for it might blow" is a phrase that was often repeated in the early days of hazardous materials response training. This was the battle cry back in the 1970's when most of the available hazmat training came from the railroad industry. At that time it probably was not a bad concept; stay away from the hazards if the hazards were not known or the risks could not be properly assessed. Unfortunately, many responders have continued to grasp this concept and many are still being trained to the worst-case scenario type of response. This is known as the "Chicken Little Syndrome" where every hazmat incident demands a full response and commitment of personnel and resources. There is a better way!

The new millennium has dawned and hazmat response is still a reality. In fact, hazmat response is very technical in nature but it has proven to be very manageable. Experience and advances in training and technology have provided insights on how to handle hazmat incidents appropriately. That is, handling hazmat releases by gearing the response according to the hazards and risks present. This type of response has proven to be cost effective, time efficient, and safe for responders. Conversely, underplaying an incident should also be avoided for the same reasons.

The key to handling hazmat responses geared to the situation is through effective training that includes proper risk assessment techniques, determining the situational demands, making effective decisions, and examining case studies.

Frank Docimo, a national hazmat presenter, has developed a unique system where the risks can be quickly analyzed and assessed by simple means and consequently the appropriate level of response can be selected. Frank has impressed upon many students that the vapor pressure of the material released or spilled drives the response by emergency responders. If a material has a high vapor pressure there will most likely be high quantities of the material in a vapor state. This situation presents a possible inhalation hazard for unprotected people so evacuations may have to be considered and responders may have to don protective breathing protection. High vapor areas also present toxicity and flammability hazards depending on the hazards of the material released. High vapor pressures would be considered over 100 millimeters of mercury (mm/Hg). The higher the vapor pressure for a material the more vapors can be expected in the atmosphere.

With the above in mind, Frank would classify a liquid spill as a "good day in the neighborhood" based on vapor pressure. Most liquids have lower vapor pressures than compressed liquefied gases or compressed gases and therefore would not present as high of hazards in the areas of exposures or flammability. Also, solids usually have low to no vapor pressures and would not usually present toxicity or flammability hazards especially if handled safely and with adequate personal protective equipment.

As simple as it is, this system of analyzing the spilled or released material's vapor pressure presents an effective risk assessment tool. Coupled with researching the other hazards of the material such as biological indices, flashpoint, flammable range, and incompatibilities responders can quickly develop their tactical plans and safely handle hazmat releases.

Answers to these questions can also assist in decision making at hazmat emergencies;

1. What state is the material that is released?

  • Solid- will have low or no vapor pressure.
  • Liquid- will no, low, moderate, or high vapor pressure
  • Gas- will have high or extremely high vapor pressure
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