Recognizing that you're operating on the scene of a hazardous materials emergency is key to keeping responders safe during operations on such calls. Command and chief officers often operate on the scene of a hazmat call as if they were chasing a ghost in the darkness. Decisions on an emergency scene are often driven by visual indicators of progress, and that's how we adjust and redirect our strategy and tactics.
Unfortunately, toxic atmospheres can't be visually detected and mandate the use of detection and survey devices by technically trained personnel. In Near-Miss report 09-950, the officer in charge was prompted several times to the fact that he was responding to a hazmat call but failed to react accordingly.
I responded on a first-due assignment to a reported hazmat release. The product that had been released was chlorine. The chemical was raining down and causing skin burns to the people outside. While en route, I asked my officer where he wanted to shut down and stage. He failed to answer me; I asked him again, this time trying to prompt him to use the ERG to establish a safe distance. I still received no answer.
Once on scene, a safe distance should be established to set your isolation zones (hot, warm and cold). Initial reconnaissance should be done from a safe distance and may require the use of binoculars to identify signage, placards or labels that can tell you what product you're dealing with. Being uphill and upwind is ideal, but not always achievable.
A best-practice approach is to use several resource books, coupled with meters and survey equipment from a safe distance, to safely set your isolation zones. Once you've established the hot zone, entry for on-scene personnel should be restricted to technically trained personnel and where the hot line is should be both verbally communicated and established with visual indicators such as barrier tape or cones.
At no point should you, as the incident commander, enter the hot zone to perform reconnaissance.
Further on in this near-miss report, the officer in charge directed the driver to park in a protective position but then changed tactics and decided to take a closer look; he ended up exposing himself and the crew to a potentially toxic atmosphere:
I parked uphill and upwind from the release and started to shut down the engine. The officer then instructed me to drive towards the building in question so he could do a safety size-up. At this point, we were unaware if the leak was stopped or not and had no indication of having a safe scene. I asked the officer to confirm the order and he did. I then proceeded to drive directly into the hot zone, followed by our ambulance. Once we got to the building, the officer rolled down his window, began to interview the victims and ordered the ambulance to load them up and take them out of the hot zone.
Taking the time to do a thorough size-up and risk analysis will set you up for success when commanding a hazmat call. Starting with dispatch information, you can start to navigate the uncontrollable factors that will help establish a safe operating practice once on scene.
The other factor to consider is communication. Hazmat response is a resource-based discipline and a number of issues must be addressed before engaging in offensive tactics. Establishing a resource officer and taking the extra minute or two to identify threshold values and behavior patterns of the chemical in question will allow for a safer, deliberate approach to mitigating the problem.
By frontloading the call and being proactive, command officers will be able to safely respond and operate on the scene of a hazmat call.
C.J. Haberkorn is the assistant chief in charge of Special Operations for the Denver Fire Department and is a trainer for the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System.