By: Ernest G. Vendrell, CPP, CPO, CEM
Reprint Protection News
When a hazardous materials incident occurs, prompt action by well trained and properly equipped emergency responders is essential for a successful outcome. Typically, fire departments are well prepared to handle hazmat incidents. However, the fire service is heavily dependent on lesser trained police and security personnel to evacuate civilians from affected areas as well as protect bystanders from harm by establishing and maintaining an incident perimeter. It should also be noted that, on occasion, police and security personnel have rescued victims prior to the arrival of fire and emergency services personnel. Although commendable, these courageous acts must always be considered in terms of the risk for personal injury or death.
As a result, police and security personnel are sometimes at risk for being injured or killed when responding to hazmat incidents. This threat can often be minimized by following some basic guidelines. The following is a list of hazmat related safety and scene management considerations that can be used by security personnel:
Responding to the Area
- Do evaluate dispatch information or how the call was received.
- Do avoid the urge to rush in. By rushing in you could become part of the problem.
- Do approach with caution. A hazardous materials incident should be approached upwind and upgrade. Stop and check wind direction prior to getting close to the incident site.
- Do position yourself (and your vehicle) at least 300 feet from the scene of the incident for most cases. This distance can be increased further depending on the incident situation, chemical exposure hazards, etc.
- Don't respond to the hazardous incident site if you have any doubts as to the nature or type of material that is present or involved.
- Do stay back at least 2,000 feet when encountering gas clouds, explosives, and other extremely dangerous situations.
- Do look for placards/labels, container types, and ask driver/owner for waybill (train), bill of lading (transportation on roadways), airbill (airplanes), dangerous cargo manifest (ships), Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), any clerical paperwork that may be available, etc.
- Do call for the fire department and hazmat team. Also, call for emergency medical services, environmental agencies, and other groups that may be needed.
- Do advise responding agencies of the situation (if possible, do this even before they arrive).
- Do give other responding agencies all the details regarding your observations as well as witness accounts.
- Do become familiar with and use the latest edition of the North American Emergency Response Guidebook. It contains valuable information and procedures that can be used by first responders at a hazmat incident.
- Do use the telephone advisory services of the Canadian Transport Emergency Centre (CANUTEC) in Canada, if needed. In the United States, use CHEMTREC, or other similar emergency response communication services. These services are available 24 hours a day and the respective telephone numbers are listed in the Emergency Response Guidebook.
Upon Arrival in the Area
- Do stay back from the immediate area. In addition, remove those in the immediate area as well as the general area.
- Do approach vehicle crashes cautiously. Look for leaking fluids, hazardous materials placards, cylinders, containers, etc.
- Do look for placards/labels, container types, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), and ask driver/owner for the appropriate shipping documents.
- Don't drop flares to mark the area.
- Do stay away from vapor clouds, fire, leaks, spills, etc. Also, remember that some vapors are not visible, have no odor, and are extremely dangerous.
- Do control access to the hazmat scene by the public, media, and other curious security personnel.
- Do direct other individuals to a staging area located a safe distance away from the immediate hazard area.
- Don't allow persons that may have been exposed to a hazardous substance to leave the area or to make contact with persons that have not been exposed. Exposed individuals should be segregated upwind and at a safe distance from the incident for treatment and to limit the spread of the contamination.
- Do cooperate with other agencies to resolve the problem.
If you should find yourself at the hazmat site before realizing there is a problem:
- Don't take deep breaths to see what it smells like. This seems easy enough, but it is difficult even for trained personnel since it is a natural reaction.
- Do be cautious where you step. You could be walking into a hazardous substance.
- Don't take action unless you have been specifically trained in the area of hazardous materials, are properly equipped, have sufficient backup, are authorized to act, and are sure what to do. Improper action can have devastating effects. Remember, as a first responder, you are to operate in a defensive mode.
- Don't assume that what is marked on a label, drum, or container is what is actually inside. Many individuals that are involved in the illegal handling, transportation, and disposal of hazardous materials often mix, or "cocktail", these substances.
- Do note any information that is marked on a drum or container. The information may assist responding hazmat personnel.
- Don't disturb or move any container or drums. They may have deteriorated from the inside out as a result of reacting with the substance inside. Any movement of a drum or container could cause container failure with the release of product.
- Do look for danger signs such as drums or containers that are leaking, bulging, or emitting a vapor. If you have any doubts about whether what you are seeing is dangerous, leave the scene immediately.
After the Incident:
- Don't leave a hazardous materials incident scene without first being checked by emergency medical services or hazmat personnel to determine whether or not you have been contaminated. If it is determined that you have been contaminated, it is imperative that a proper decontamination procedure be followed in order to ensure your health and the well-being of other individuals that you may come in contact with. In addition, refer to your organization's hazardous substance standard operating procedures (S.O.P.'s) for guidance regarding further actions.
- Do remember that hazardous substances retained by uniforms, including shoes, can be toxic to others who may come in contact with them (children are particularly susceptible, so be careful what you bring home).
- Do document all details concerning the incident, your response, and the actions of other professionals on the scene for future reference.
As outlined, responding to a hazmat incident requires prompt action by individuals who are properly trained and well-equipped. Although certainly not all-inclusive, the recommendations presented here can assist security personnel to maintain a safer posture at the scene of a hazmat incident. Many of the guidelines will also serve to assist responding emergency services personnel, including the hazmat specialists.
Transport Canada, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Secretariat of Transport and Communications of Mexico (2000). Emergency response guidebook. Washington, DC: Authors.