Technical Rescue: Hazmat Rescue Challenges and Solutions

Nov. 14, 2022
Patrick Jessee covers the considerations of location, chemicals, radiation and decontamination in regard to technical rescues at hazmat incidents.

We might have frequent runs that are hazmat incidents because of a chemical component: carbon monoxide alarms, fuel spills, natural gas investigations. However, a complicated hazmat incident that requires a rescue is infrequent. Furthermore, the location of hazmat incidents and the makeup of hazmat teams can vary immensely. Although some of the latter are full-time hazmat teams, many comprise individual team members who only get activated for a specialized incident.

These issues can make even a simple response complex and lengthy. Planning for rescue scenarios such as these might be difficult, but it’s important to be prepared to help those who are in need.

Specific considerations for the primary hazard classes of hazmat responses of radiological/nuclear and chemical are discussed below. Biological incidents are omitted, because, frequently, they don’t have a significant technical rescue component. Other issues discussed include specialized location, decontamination and rescue teams for downed hazmat technicians.

Location considerations

Fire companies that are near chemical manufacturing or transportation facilities must be aware of the specific hazards that are within these locations. On-site workers have a very good understanding of the hazmat considerations for their facility. The opposite is true for responders. Walk-throughs of these facilities can show responders the hazards that are present: loud ambient noises, overhead environment with piping, valves and flanges; and trip hazards. This doesn’t address the chemical or mechanical hazards that are involved in the chemical manufacture or transfer processes.

During a walk-through, first-in companies and/or specialized hazmat or rescue teams can gather information about where emergency shut-offs are located, how to effect rescues from confined or elevated platforms and how to preplan different scenarios should an incident materialize. This helps responders consider the complexities that can emerge should a hazmat/technical rescue incident occur. Even if an incident doesn’t occur at this location, the knowledge that’s gained can help at other situations.

Responders also can benefit by developing relationships with on-site workers during a walk-through. Workers can provide critical information to the responders about the site. This can include information for lockout/tagout locations of any equipment that’s involved with the incident; SDS locations; emergency decontamination stations; and specific locations of high-risk/hazard reactions or chemical/radiological storage. Having these working relationships before arriving on scene for an emergency can help to make a response function more efficiently.

Many chemical facilities have a large footprint that’s intertwined with a labyrinth of piping and machinery. This might delay getting to the actual incident location, which can delay care to an injured person. This also might cause staging locations to be far away and make it difficult to get personnel and equipment into place in a timely manner.

The need for chemical protective clothing (CPC) in this space might restrict how many responders can go downrange. It also can limit their work time once at the location.

Some solutions to accommodate these challenges can include the use of small wagons or ladder luggers to move equipment; use of ropes or lines to create a path to the location of the incident; and use of glow sticks or other lights to create a path for subsequent rescue teams to follow. When glow sticks are used, be certain that you use compatible colors if law enforcement in your jurisdiction uses them for different tactical reasons.

Also, glow sticks could be kicked by responders accidently when they move through a space. Responders should be aware of this when moving downrange.

Chemical considerations

Regardless of whether the incident is medical or traumatic in nature, the clock is ticking for the patient. While the patient is waiting for care, you have an opportunity to help the patient by making the environment as hospitable as possible by using confined-space fans to turn over the atmosphere. This creates either a cleaner environment and/or provides some cooling for the patient. Rescuers must continuously monitor the environment to be certain that any actions create a positive effect for the patient. You don’t want to introduce more hazards, such as carbon monoxide from vehicles or generators, into the space.

If the patient is conscious, rescuers can provide an SCBA/RIT pack to provide clean breathing air. Rescuers also can attempt to have the victim self-rescue (ladders, wound care, etc.) if a significant amount of time will be required to get rescuers in place.

If the patient was contaminated with chemicals, an emergency decon could be performed on the patient, depending on the chemical properties and assuming that this won’t create additional harm.

Radiological considerations

The basic principles of safe radiation practices apply to radiological rescue considerations as well as for radiation workers. Time, distance and shielding are important for the survivability of a victim of a radiation incident.

Responders who work within a radiological contamination zone should do so with a goal of achieving “as low as reasonably achievable” (ALARA) for both themselves and any victims. Minimizing the time in the Hot Zone reduces the time component to help to achieve ALARA.

Performing as much planning, staging and/or donning/doffing as possible in a remote location provides distance from the radiation source.

Utilizing proper PPE for personal shielding or using dense materials to help to shield the response teams and/or victims from the radiation provides the defensive component.

All areas that are utilized in a radiological/nuclear incident should be continuously monitored to ensure that no change in conditions occurs during rescue operations.

Decon considerations

Decon from a hazmat incident is time-consuming and staffing-intensive. Technical decon for responders in CPC requires a significant footprint and substantial staffing. This adds a significant amount of time for the responders to safely doff gear. It also reduces the amount of usable air that they have in their SCBA for rescue tactics. The decon team also must go through decon. These facts should be considered when a plan for a hazmat rescue is developed.

The collection of water from the decon process also is an issue. Many municipalities require the collection and disposal of the decon water as part of the recovery process. Good communication and established relationships with the local water department help to identify what’s allowed to go into the sewer system and what must be collected as part of the cleanup.

Decon from a radiological incident presents a unique challenge: If multiple responders are contaminated, the collection of radioactive material from the decon process can turn the decon area into a radiological Hot Zone. Decon areas should be monitored for radiation throughout the incident.

The use of technical rescue equipment in a hazmat incident is probable in an industrial setting. This equipment might become contaminated during the incident. Confidence in the integrity of technical rescue equipment (ropes, carabiners, harnesses, etc.) is paramount. This equipment might become unsafe by chemical exposure. Although it might be able to be decontaminated, it also is possible that it will become unusable. This will make the replacement of this equipment part of the recovery process for the “spiller pays” for hazmat and might affect the operational readiness of rescue teams.

Technical rescue considerations

Industrial settings, such as chemical manufacturing, can turn a routine rescue quickly into a complex technical rescue. Rescuers might be required to wear cumbersome chemical protective gear, coupled with SCBA, which can make movement and rescue difficult. Combining this with the need for rescue harnesses and rope systems makes it even more challenging. All of this adds significant weight; restricts dexterity, movement, vision and hearing; reduces communication abilities; and adds significant heat stresses. It also increases the risks of an already hazardous situation for the responders. Members should be monitored medically throughout the rescue.

Movement of patients in a hazmat situation might be challenging because of the terrain, the vertical component of the rescue and/or long distances. The floor plan might not allow for the use of a stretcher because of stairs or trip hazards. Use of a stokes basket, while advantageous, can be physically demanding on responders, but it’s a viable solution if enough personnel are available. Use of webbing, harnesses, patient-extrication devices and/or skeds can help to move a victim over long distances.

In today’s environment, cross-disciplined teams should exist, even with different mission profiles. The frequency of crossing between hazmat and technical rescue incidents is great. Although it takes a significant amount of training hours to make a member cross-disciplined, the benefits to both teams are quantifiable. At minimum, members of each team should have a strong working knowledge of the other team’s areas of concern, tactics and hazards.

Downed hazmat technician

Although responders bring a significant amount of training and experience to an incident, the risks to the rescuers still are present.

The most recent standards on hazmat incidents from the NFPA published include discussions of the establishment of rescue teams. Hazmat team leadership should view this effectively as a rapid intervention team to do quick and effective emergency decon and medical care before handing over to EMS. This rescue team concept should be put into plans for hazmat responses. The language from NFPA 470: Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Standard for Responders includes the discussion of rescue teams for downed members:

“Rescue Team: Consists of responders trained to receive a stricken entry team member who has been removed from the Hot Zone by the backup team. Use of the rescue team is an option that is activated by the incident commander based on an assessment of risk and the needs of the incident.

“The rescue team should be prepared to receive the stricken member from the backup team within one minute of activation unless otherwise instructed by incident command. The rescue team should be responsible for initiating emergency decontamination and life-saving measures immediately after handoff by the backup team. The rescue team possesses the equipment required to rescue the member from the chemical protective clothing, such as suit cutters. The rescue team hands off the stricken member to EMS. A rescue team should be considered on all hazardous materials/WMD incidents.”

Victim and rescuer safety

A hazmat rescue is complex. Hazmat and technical rescue teams should establish working relationships with each other and understand each other’s areas of expertise and mission objectives. By planning and training together, teams can be better prepared to respond and support these rare situations. Not only will this help victims, but it also provides for a safer response for the members of the hazmat/technical rescue teams.

About the Author

Patrick Jessee

Patrick Jessee is the commander/paramedic for the Bureau of Operations of the Chicago Fire Department, serving on the staff of the Deputy Fire Commissioner of Operations. In his 22 years with the department, he has contributed to public safety in a variety of leadership and operation-level roles, including EMS, fire suppression and rescue, and special operations (technical rescue and hazmat). Jessee also serves as the Hazardous Materials Training Program Manager for the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy. He holds graduate degrees in public policy and administration, threat and response management, and biology as well as undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry. Jessee is a Certified Emergency Manager with the International Association of Emergency Managers. 

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