Hazardous materials response is a dangerous business! Chief John Eversole, recently retired from the Chicago Fire Department HazMat Division, has offered one of the best definitions to describe our actions at these emergencies when he stated that hazmat response is "putting the tiger back in the cage". The analogy is appropriate; tigers have big teeth, big appetites, and they can eviscerate us at a moments notice. Similarly, hazardous materials (hazmats) can maim by combusting, by exploding, or by its corrosive nature (among other things). Putting hazmats back in their container, then, can be very daunting endeavors. However, with a proper attitude toward safety and a healthy respect of the nature of the hazardous material releases we encounter we can handle these emergencies without injuries to responders.
Hazmat response is inherently dangerous. Since 1970 more than 50 responders have been killed in the line of duty while responding to hazmat incidents according to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). A brief listing of some major tragedies are testament to this fact. Locations such as Kingman, Waverly, Buffalo, Kansas City, and even obscure locations such as Burnside, Illinois and Albert City, Iowa have all had hazmat disasters in which first responders were killed. Another statistic by the IAFF also reports that firefighters are 6 times more likely to get injured at a hazmat incident than a structure fire.
What are the reasons for these statistics? The causal factors are actually numerous. Our cavalier, aggressive attitudes have been instilled in us since recruit school and all of us have been trained to enter the building at a structure fire with the least delay and "slay the dragon". It has been proven that this approach is not the way hazmat emergencies should be handled because rushing in leads to needless hazmat exposures. Since most of our behavior is learned it is very difficult to "re-learn" how to respond safely to hazmat emergencies. But this excuse is merely a disguise for inadequate or a lack of effective training.
Some other reasons for these statistics may be sheer ignorance of the material's hazards by response personnel, or responders may be totally complacent at hazmat emergencies and think, "this stuff will not hurt me!" Finally, responders can, and have been, surprised by the presence of a hazmat. This can happen on any emergency but unfortunately, many responders have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
HazMat Response Team Safety
Hazmat response teams have had excellent safety records over their two or three decade history. Very few deaths and or major injuries have been recorded since Jacksonville, Florida initiated the country's first hazmat team in the mid-1970's. The only documented death to a hazmat team member occurred in Shreveport, Louisiana in September 1984. At this event a team member sustained third degree burns over 90% of his body and died six hours after the anhydrous ammonia atmosphere he was in ignited. His partner was also badly burned but survived at the cold storage facility incident.
Most documented hazmat injuries have been minor in nature. In fact, over the last decade the rate of injuries for hazmat response teams across the country has declined possibly due to experience by team members, improved standard operating guidelines, or better personal protective equipment.
Safe HazMat Response
The art of responding to hazmat emergencies safely is to avoid getting "scratched or bitten by the tiger" or injured while handling the hazardous material. To do so requires constant vigilance and adherence to many safety principles. In essence responders need a constant awareness of all hazards and a healthy respect for the dangers inherent with hazmat responses. It is also paramount to know "what-to-do" and "what-not-to do" at hazmat incidents. This requires being cognizant of our limitations, which come in the form of the equipment available, the training of our personnel, and other incident logistics. We need to honestly assess our ability to handle some incidents and not be ashamed or dishonored to admit when an incident is beyond our capabilities.