Hazmat Focus: John Zour asks if operations-trained responders are underequipped and underutilised.

Incidents involving hazardous (hazmat) and CBR materials come in all shapes and sizes. First responders worldwide are responding to acid attacks, lithium-ion battery fires and other incidents that force them into action without the benefit of an on-scene, highly trained and equipped hazmat team. The worldwide response community’s ability to recognise one of these incidents is based on their training and available equipment.

For years, the overwhelming emphasis on equipment upgrades has been geared towards specialist hazmat teams. Portable mass spectrometers, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are now realistic capabilities for many emergency-based response teams.

However, these well-equipped and highly trained teams are not the first arriving resource on every incident. There are situations where the trained, but underequipped first arriving resources will be forced to make a risk-based decision. The question is, how will they assess this risk?

First vital assessment

In certain situations, the first arriving emergency resource may not even recognise that hazmat or CBR is involved. They are routinely dispatched to incidents with incomplete, vague and sometimes conflicting information.

Early recognition of any problem is the cornerstone to success. The highly trained and equipped hazmat team is of little use, if the first arriving, first responder does not have the means to detect the hazardous condition. This large group of first arriving, first responders is comprised of firefighters, law enforcement, emergency medical technicians, tow operators, industry response teams and more.

Real-time hazards

This well-intentioned group, trained to an awareness or operations level in hazmat/CBR response is simply underequipped to be very effective. They largely have to rely on factors such as signs and symptoms, placards, fixed facility markings, and safety data sheets.

While these factors are important, they do not solely reflect the presence of actual, real-time hazards. As an example, fourth-generation agents pose several unique challenges in terms of toxicity, detection and potential for delayed onset of symptoms.

Additionally, incidents involving an intentional or unintentional mixture of chemicals may yield a very toxic, hard-to-predict by-product. Variables such as ambient temperature, humidity, wind and atmospheric pressure can contribute to a catastrophic underestimation of real-time hazards.

The right equipment

Applicable regulations and consensus-based standards make reference to similar training level classifications. Conceptually, emergency response workers fall into the following categories: Awareness, Operations, Technician and Specialist.

As the training level increases, equipment generally gets more complex, more costly to purchase and maintain, and is less available in the initial stages of an incident. The exact opposite criteria should be used when designing equipment for awareness and operations-level trained responders.

Readily available to the masses, low initial cost, zero maintenance and sustainment cost, easy-to-use-and-understand equipment are paramount for this underequipped group. A first arriving emergency resource is more likely to evaluate risk appropriately, if the available equipment is easy to use.

Frequently, specialist teams have extended response times which can allow incident conditions to change or deteriorate without detection. At a minimum, an appropriately equipped, first arriving crew should reevaluate their initial isolation distances regularly, and communicate their findings to the responding resources. Pertinent negatives and positives will minimise speculation on the actual incident conditions.

Response to ammonia leak

In 2012, as part of an emergency response hazmat team, I responded to an anhydrous ammonia leak at a cold-storage facility. The first arriving, operations level trained, emergency crew, equipped with an atmospheric monitor, structural turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) conducted a search of the commercial structure prior to our arrival.

The atmospheric monitor was configured with an oxygen, Lower Explosive Limit (LEL) pentane calibrated, hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and carbon monoxide (CO) sensor.

The crew observed elevated (>20% LEL) readings of LEL throughout the structure, but was unaware of the significant toxicity hazard.

Fortunately, they continued using their SCBA although there was no visible hazard. When the crew donned their respiratory protection, they lost their ability to smell the outside environment.

Trained but underequipped

Ironically, it was through the use of this much-needed PPE that the crew lost their primary detection tool. The elevated LEL readings did not reflect the highly toxic, IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) level that existed.

We quickly realised that emergency responders all over the world were appropriately trained, but underequipped for these types of common situations. Chemicals that cause olfactory fatigue or conditions that scrub odorant from hazardous materials are too common to rely on our sense of smell when it comes to responder safety.

The ZMac card

As a result of this incident, a reliable, cost-effective and easy-to-use piece of equipment was developed. In Our Gear, LLC created the ZMac card, which puts eight chemical detection papers in the hands of those critical first arriving emergency resources.

Additionally, each of the eight sections has a meaningful colour change reference portion, initial isolation distance recommendation, and specific hazard information listed.

While operating within their scope of training and defined mission, the first responder peels the protective cover off the ZMac card to expose the eight chemical papers. They observe any meaningful colour change, read the words, and communicate the positives and pertinent negatives.

In Our Gear’s patented ZMac card also connects real-time hazard information with a reference source, The Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). This resource is available to emergency response personnel in Canada, Mexico and the USA when responding to a transportation emergency involving hazardous materials.

The ZMac card can be used to verify the effectiveness of emergency decontamination efforts. This feedback loop would help minimise cross-contamination potential in patient transport units and hospitals. Wipe sampling has long been a technique used by hazmat teams during technical decontamination, but is difficult to accomplish in emergency decontamination situations.

As hazmat and CBR threats continue, the need for better training and equipment increases. Equipping our vast number of awareness and operations-level trained responders with reliable, simple and cost-effective equipment goes a long way in fulfilling our mission: the protection of life, property and the environment.

John Zour CSP CFPS is President and Founder of In Our Gear, LLC. A 20-year veteran of the Fire Service, he currently serves as a Captain with Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services (MD). He is currently assigned as the Assistant Team Leader for their Special Operations Team responsible for technical rescue and hazmat response.

A hazmat officer reviews the ZMac card used by the first arriving crew to a chemical suicide incident.
©John Zour