Thursday, August 13, 2015

There's an unknown substance on the ground: Hazardous Materials incidents

Question: which of the following is a hazardous material?

A.      Gasoline

B.      White out

C.      Oxygen

D.      Peroxide

The answer is: all of the above.

Incidents involving hazardous materials don’t occur frequently but when the call comes in quick action is required. Does your agency have a dispatcher protocol for hazardous materials events? If so, follow the procedure. What happens if there is no specific policy & procedure in place? What should you ask? Where can you find out information on the involved substance?

Having information ahead of time is a hallmark of preparation. Public Safety Telecommunicators should have a reference in the communications center. The most common book utilized is the ‘orange book’, or Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). The Emergency Response Guidebook is published by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The book can be obtained for free by agencies or downloaded from the site. The ERG provides data on thousands of substances (solids, liquids, and gasses). Information includes basic instructions for initial incident handling by First Responders, medical concerns, treatment, and handling/clean-up. A list of companies that can provide detailed help regarding the substance is listed for USA, Canada, and Mexico. The National Poison Control number is given as well. Another source of help is the ‘Pocket Partner’ website. This extensive guidebook for Public Safety personnel requires a fee to access the data. Another reference is a binder put together by the individual department consisting of 'MSDS', or Material Safety Data Sheets. These documents have a detailed explanation of the material, it's chemical make-up, hazards, handling spills, and medical treatment.

Hazardous materials incidents can run the gamut from a simple spill of gasoline at an accident scene to a call for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threat. Terrorism is defined by Webster as “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.” The U.S. Code goes a little further in its definition:  “…the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

In 1984, members of the Raineeshpuram cult grew and used Salmonella bacteria to contaminate salad bars at local restaurants to influence an election causing 715 to become sick and 45 hospitalized. In 1995, Larry Wayne Harris illegally obtained vials of Yersinia pestis – which causes bubonic plague. Mr. Harris resurfaced again in 1998, claiming to have the anthrax substance (proved to be animal variety). The Dirkson Senate building in Florida was shut down and five deaths resulted from letters received contaminated with anthrax. Natural gas explosions have made the news in recent years but the event is not new. In 1928, an explosion at the Mather Mine (PA) killed 195 men. Propane gas ignited by passing trains killed 575 people in Ufa. Chlorine gas leaks can be devastating, especially when the gas forms a cloud. The city of Henderson (NV) dealt with a chlorine gas leak in 1991 that resulted in 7000 people being displaced, 200 treated at local hospitals and 30 people admitted. Two bombs placed at the Boston Marathon killed 3 and injured over 260 people. Even the threat of a bomb can disrupt a city for hours. A common sight is a semi-truck hauling fuel. In 1982, a double-tanker hit a vehicle and was itself hit by another vehicle in the Caldecott Tunnel. The resulting fire killed seven. Due to the location, the fire was allowed to burn out due to issues with the fire water mains.

Calls may originate via 911, non-emergency lines, in-house lines, or social media. Dispatchers should attempt to obtain as much information as possible. Any data obtained should be relayed to First responders as soon as possible. The information obtained by dispatchers can impact how First Responders handle the event. First due companies may request a HazMat unit to respond immediately.  Agency protocol may require an automatic mutual aid request or ‘alert’ page.

Questions to ask include (see your department’s guidelines for further guidance):


1)      Caller’s name and phone number

2)      Date and time of incident

3)      Location of incident (address) and type of terrain (urban, desert, hills, etc.)

4)      What problem is (actual verses threat)

5)      If hazmat, type of substance (liquid, gas, solid)

6)      Any odor? If so, can caller describe it (sweet, fruity, rotten egg, grassy, hayish, etc.)

7)      Is substance contained (jack-knifed trailer, etc.)

8)      Is anyone sick, injured, or dead? Where is victim(s)?

9)      Is there any smoke or fire?

10)   Can caller see the placard on vehicle or premises? What is the color and code?

11)   Has there been an explosion?

12)   If a device has been found, where is it?

13)   What does device look like?

14)   Anyone seen in area possibly relating to device or threat? Get description (person and vehicle), when last seen, and direction of travel.

Many states have a course on Weapons of Mass destruction for Public Safety Personnel. The Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) offers free self-paced on-line courses in this topic.


Emergency Response Guidebook site:


Pocket Guide site:


FEMA website:


Until next time, stay safe out there.

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