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Environmental Sustainability: Categorizing Risk from Fire Suppression Products on the Local Environment

In early 2010, the IAFC’s Environmental Sustainability Committee (ESC) assumed the responsibility of exploring environmental solutions in fire service operations. The ESC sought best practices to reduce inadvertent environmental impact caused by fire suppression operations or any other operation where runoff products may be introduced to wellhead, aquifer or watershed areas.

Structural, vehicle and other outdoor fires routinely require copious amounts of water to extinguish them, as well as detergent foam products known to contain fluorocarbon- and hydrocarbon-based surfactants. Runoff from such fire-suppression events isn’t tested, contained or mitigated.

To research possible solutions, I met with staff from Barnstable County Emergency Planning, the Cape Cod Commission, Massachusetts Department of Environment Protection, Environmental Protection Administration Region 1 and a host of other agencies and personnel.

In 2011, a project team developed an aquifer-risk GIS-mapping project for the Yarmouth, Mass., as a first step in addressing the goals of the ESC. The GIS mapping was based on an existing EPA model known as DRASTIC, a systematic strategy for defining aquifer risk, adaptable for conditions across the United States (Aller, Bennett, Lahr and Petty, 1985. “DRASTIC: A standardized system for evaluating groundwater pollution potential using hydrogeologic setting.” National Water Well Association and U.S. EPA. EPA/600/2-85/018).

DRASTIC was modified for the unique hydrogeologic conditions of Cape Cod’s sole source aquifer, and results were integrated with readily available GIS-based environmental data layers, including depth to groundwater, wetlands, wellhead protection zones and surface water features.

The final product was a numerically rated GIS data layer that categorizes the relative risk to the aquifer. For example, areas close to groundwater or covered by a high percentage of impervious surface were rated as having greater risk from a contaminant transport perspective. The model was then linked to parcel land use information so results could be searchable by location.

Recognizing that defining environmental risk would aid firefighters in applying sustainable management practices, the Vulnerability Impact Protocol for Environmental Resources (VIPER) was developed as an innovative national product that could be adapted for any community.

When implemented by a fire department, it defines 2,000-square-foot areas that provide responders with a site-specific “V” rating, indicating relative risk to the aquifer from contamination; V1 indicates the least vulnerable and V8 the most vulnerable.

With this information in hand, incident commanders can develop a tiered emergency-response protocol corresponding to the risk rating. By incorporating other site-specific information, such as Tier II data, hazardous material inspection reports and building layout information, VIPER becomes a powerful rapid-response tool, linking critical site data and environmental resource information.

Information obtained from VIPER is also easily shared among multiple responding agencies, such as EPA and regional hazmat teams.

The objectives of VIPER are to:

  • Help incident commanders make informed tactical decisions through availability of water-resource sensitivity data and critical site information in real time.
  • Improve hazmat-containment response time and efficient use of firefighting assets, resulting in cost efficiencies.
  • Support information sharing and communication between emergency responders, environmental risk managers and water utility operators.
  • Enhance firefighters’ mandates to protect property, save lives and protect the safety of the firefighters.
  • Support modifications to SOPs that result in more environmentally minded, sustainable, firefighting practices.

The team considered the adaptability of the model to other communities. Access to real-time information and flexibility in executing firefighting tactics were identified as key to acceptance by local departments. VIPER provides an innovative, science-based strategy for other communities to follow, but choosing protocol and asset allocations to address the defined V rating are completely up to the responding agency.

Not only is VIPER adaptable to conditions across the country, but implementing VIPER can be accomplished with a variety of delivery platforms, from paper maps to sophisticated computer-aided dispatch systems, depending on a community’s technical resources.

Ideally, VIPER would be available at the dispatch level and also on mobile units. Once on scene, responders can reference specific details from VIPER’s database as needed.

The program was peer-reviewed at Region 1 EPA in Boston and is currently being established for beta testing in Yarmouth. We anticipate this program will result in a shift in approaches to certain incidents, resulting in a more sustainable future for generations to come.

Michael A. Walker is the fire chief of Yarmouth (Mass.) Fire Rescue and a hazmat technician.

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