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3 common hazmat scenarios and how to respond

Recognizing the chemicals involved in frequently encountered hazardous materials situations is essential for safe resolution


Knowing what to do and having the right equipment to function properly makes the difference between successfully resolving a hazmat incident or becoming part of the problem.


Sponsored by Smiths Detection

By Jim Spell for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

Regardless of an agency’s level of response, first responders are guaranteed to encounter three common hazmat scenarios. Knowing what to do and having the right equipment to function properly makes the difference between successfully resolving the incident or becoming part of the problem.

This article explores three hazmat scenarios every fire department is likely to encounter, no matter what size or service area. It’s important to first identify the chemicals involved, then choose appropriate action for safe resolution of the situation.

1. Hydrocarbons

The most common kind of hazmat incident involves hydrocarbons, better known as gasoline, diesel fuel, oil and natural gas in liquid and gas forms.

Accounting for over 75 percent of all hazardous materials transported throughout the United States, an accident involving these substances can result in explosions, lethal vapors, extensive property damage and environmental pollution.

Hydrocarbon identification goes beyond recognizing products on the ground. By using a portable chemical identifier for vapors or liquids, an entry team can identify the substance and accompanying gases and vapors in minutes and calculate their explosive ranges, concentration levels and any additional hazards due to interaction with other substances on site.

Detection tools that connect to a library of industrial chemicals grant users instant access to critical information necessary for keeping first responders safe and maintaining safe zones during the entire response.

Petroleum spills are divided into two categories: under 100 gallons and over 100 gallons. Containment and mitigation procedures will depend on the amount of product spilled, the spill environment and the immediate threat to life, property and the environment.

Given a manageable size, such spills can be absorbed with granular material resembling kitty litter and covered with a tarp to reduce vaporization. Dilution of the product with water adds to the amount and area of contamination and is rarely used as a mitigation solution.

Final cleanup by a hazmat team consists of shoveling the resulting solid material into DOT-approved containers and sealing them for transport. Hydrocarbons on fire are usually allowed to burn safely.

2. Narcotics and clandestine drug labs

While we generally don’t think of the medicines we take as inherently dangerous, the rise in demand for illegal drugs and prescription medicines taken illegally has created another common hazardous materials emergency.

Methamphetamines, MDMA, hash oil and other drugs distilled from alkaloids account for over 5,000 illegal drug labs raided every year. Using such hazardous materials as acetic anhydride, anhydrous ammonia, iodine and butane to manufacture illicit drugs, these criminal enterprises are hazardous in their operation and potentially lethal in their discovery and removal.

Even in their dormant state, drugs such as heroin, morphine, oxycodone, fentanyl and carfentanil can pose an immediate threat to life. Vapors emanating from a sealed baggie of carfentanil have rendered responding medics unconscious and can do the same (or worse) to an unsuspecting firefighter.

Also consider the threat of on-scene criminal activity and the instability of the chemical process itself. Due to the nature of such locations, entry begins with a Level A hazmat team’s initial sampling and air monitoring for scene safety. Teams check for explosive deterrents, unstable chemicals as a result of interrupted or tampered “cooking” and high concentrations of toxic vapors requiring ventilation. Encapsulation of certain areas may be recommended.

Using a handheld chemical identifier can help your team identify explosives, chemical agents, toxic industrial chemicals and narcotics. In less than a minute, such devices provide responding crews with a clear picture of possible poisonous vapors, homemade bombs and other trace hazards, as well as the potential for an increasing explosive range involving products on site.

Mitigation consists of careful removal of packaged materials, inert supplies, granulars and solids, as well as liquids via absorbent hazmat pads. Highly trained technicians can neutralize acids, bases and other alkalis for safe removal.

Final remediation deals with the volatile chemical combinations left in waste disposal areas and the various hazardous materials absorbed into walls, floors, furniture and appliances.

3. Common household products

Household products such as abrasives, disinfectants, drain and toilet bowel cleaners, furniture polish, paint strippers, thinners, preservatives and solvents are everywhere. These can be particularly dangerous when combined.

Locations such as dry cleaners, hardware stores and the local grocery all pose a potential hazmat risk. While hazardous but not threatening when kept in their correct containers and used properly, any combining, altering, abuse or spill can generate an immediate hazmat incident.

Mitigation begins with isolating and containing the area so that Level B teams can then monitor and ventilate. Remediation begins with product identification and the use of detection tools that enable teams rapidly to identify traces of toxic chemicals and assess the situation.

Remediation also includes materials breach assessment and appropriate cleanup measures. Combined materials pose the greatest threat and must be alleviated according to protocol. Confined dilution and subsequent absorption of known liquids may be applicable in certain cases, depending on initial concentrations.

Recognizing the chemicals involved in any hazmat incident and understanding their properties is essential for comprehensive and safe resolution. Knowing what is on the ground or in the air is the top priority for first responders interacting with any hazardous material, especially those common emergencies involving hydrocarbons, drugs or household products.

About the Author

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colo.) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting LLC, Jim advises business on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. Jim’s writing has won six IAFF media awards. He has an associate’s degree in fire science and a bachelor’s degree in communications. He can be reached at