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Hazardous materials incidents can expose emergency responders to dangers that require the use of air-monitoring instruments to operate safely. These dangers include thermal, radiation and oxygen concentrations and chemical hazards.
Thermal hazards involve materials that are flammable and those that are very cold. Cold materials are usually cryogenic liquids that are generally not toxic, but have large liquid-to-gas expansion rations, so small leaks can produce large vapor clouds. These vapor clouds can displace oxygen in the air and cause asphyxiation. Monitoring with oxygen meters can determine whether there is enough oxygen to breathe safely.
Flammable materials of most concern are those that are liquids or already gases. Liquid flammables produce various levels of vapor, depending on the physical characteristics of the material. Most flammable vapors are not visible to the naked eye and monitoring is necessary to determine whether the materials are present, where they are located and if they are in the flammable range. Chemical hazards include toxic, corrosive and reactive materials.
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Most serious injuries and deaths involving airborne releases occur through exposure to toxic materials. Toxic materials can enter the body through ingestion, skin contact, injection and inhalation. The primary reason for wearing chemical protective equipment on the scene of a hazardous materials incident is to provide protection against toxic materials. In order to select proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and operate safely around hazardous materials at an incident scene, responders use air-monitoring instruments to determine the type of chemical present and where it is located.
The Reno, NV, Fire Department’s Hazmat Operational Procedures emphasize analyzing and monitoring incident scenes to conclude incidents more quickly and shrink the required distances of “hot zones.” Using this process, responders have reduced the average incident on-scene time from six hours to 45 minutes.
Reno hazmat team members are trained to be analysis “experts.” A primary tool for on-scene analysis is a laboratory-grade, portable gas spectrometer that identifies liquids and gases. This is an expensive instrument and few fire departments can afford them. Reno hazmat technicians operate a shop for testing, calibrating and maintaining the department’s monitors.
Robots are increasingly becoming a part of our society from manufacturing to helping with chores at home. Bomb squads have used robots extensively for years to handle dangerous jobs, no doubt saving the lives of countless bomb squad members. Robots can also be used at hazmat incidents for recon and air monitoring to keep personnel out of harm’s way. Fire departments across the country use specially designed robots that are dedicated to hazmat response or used for both hazmat and bomb squad operations. For example, Picatinny Arsenal Fire and Emergency Services in New Jersey uses a robot with many features tailored specifically for hazmat responses. These features include a chemical/biological meter, multi-gas meter, radiation detector, laser temperature detector and a manipulative arm with a griping claw. Readings received from the meters on the robot are logged into a computer-type device.
To select meters, determine potential hazards in your jurisdiction from transportation exposures and fixed facilities. Hazards can include oxygen-deficient atmospheres such as confined spaces, flammable liquids and gases, radiation and toxic materials. Identify and select monitoring instruments that are easy to calibrate and maintain. Establish standard operating procedures (SOPs) for using monitors and identify action levels.