Hazmat safety: What fire officers must know

When it comes to low-frequency incidents like hazmat response, having a grasp of the basics can make all the difference in a safe outcome


More than ever the fire service is truly America's first-responder. And the first-arriving fire company is on point when a department is called for a fire, a medical emergency, a technical rescue, a hazardous materials release, and many more incident types too numerous to list. 

While a fire company must have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to handle fires the company officer must have his or her people prepared to be that first responder to any type of emergency.

Let's take a quick run through the various sources of information that may be available to the company officer and their crew when they are first-in on a hazardous materials release. For this discussion, we're going to keep it on the level of the hazardous materials awareness level.

Remember the first-responder strategies when faced with a hazardous materials release? I thought you did, but let's quickly review so that you'll look good working with your crew and talking about them.

  • Isolate the release by setting up an initial 360-degree hot zone.
  • Deny entry to the hot zone.
  • Identify the material and its hazards using available resources.

Hazmat in transit
The North American Emergency Response Guidebook — still widely known as the ERG despite the name change many years ago — is the first responder's hazmat bible.

The NAERG is one resource that should always be readily accessible in the apparatus cab because you never know when a hazardous materials event will break out, and the NAERG provides all the information you need to implement first-responder strategies. Here's how the book breaks down.

  • Yellow Section: Materials are listed by their four-digit UN identification numbers.
  • Blue Section: Materials are listed by name.
  • Orange Section: Provides the first responder basic, awareness-level procedures for initial incident management actions.
  • Green Section: Provides initial isolation and protective action distances.

Remember, when any chemical is highlighted in the yellow or blue section, the green section is used. The entries are highlighted because they are materials that readily off-gas and present an inhalation hazard.

Understanding placards
U.S. Department of Transportation placards, 8- x 8-inch squares, are required for the transportation of hazardous materials by road or rail in compliance with 49 CFR, Part 172, Subpart F. Labeling requirements are covered in Subpart E. 

To the untrained eye, these placards don't appear to offer much information, but not so for a first responder with awareness-level training. Placards and labels interface very well with the NAERG.

In addition to providing a four-digit UN identification number for a material look up in the guide, the NAERG also has a list of all the DOT placard classes that direct the responder to the appropriate emergency action guide in the orange section — match the placard, match the action plan.

If we consider the information from the NAERG and placards as macro-level information about hazardous materials, then shipping papers would be the micro level for materials in transport. Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR), Title 49 CFR Parts 100-185 requires the shipper to list information to describe a hazardous material that is being transported.

On a shipping paper is that information is known as the basic description. Information for the basic description consists of the identification number, the proper shipping name, the hazard class or division, and the packing group. The HMR does not specify the format that the information must be presented in; it only dictates what information must be included on any shipping papers.

NFPA 704
The NFPA 704 marking system was developed by the National Fire Protection Association to alert emergency personnel to the type and degree of hazards within an area helping them to decide whether to evacuate the area or to commence control procedures. This standard is not applicable to transportation or for use by the general public.

I've always used the layout of a baseball diamond to help me remember what the four quadrants symbolized in the 704 marking system.

  • Yellow quadrant (first base) indicates reactivity hazard; the susceptibility to release of energy.
  • Red quadrant (second base) indicates flammability hazard; the susceptibility of materials to burn.
  • Blue quadrant (third base) indicates health hazard; the type of possible injury.
  • Lower quadrant (homeplate) contains symbols indicating special hazards, such as OXY (oxidizers), radioactive trefoil (propeller), W (water reactive materials).

Each of the colored quadrants contains a number from 0 to 4 (With 4 being the highest hazard) indicating the relative degree of hazard within the container or facility.

Measuring the hazard
What quantities of hazardous substances require the NFPA 704 marking system? 

Federal law, 40 CFR Part 355, sets reporting thresholds at 10,000 pounds for hazardous chemicals, 500 pounds or the Threshold Planning Quantity — whichever is less — for Extremely Hazardous Substances, and 100 pounds for explosives and blasting agents. Part 355 also lists the EHS chemicals and their TPQs.

Federal law also states that NFPA 704 signs are to be placed on buildings, rooms, and containers where hazardous chemicals are located. Since the purpose of these signs is to assist first responders in recognizing and identifying possible hazards, you should expect to find 704 marking signs clearly visible on exterior doors or walls of a structure and on exterior storage tanks.

Don't discount the people who work with the material every day. The most important person on the scene of a hazardous-materials release can be that person. They may be the truck driver, the train engineer, the facility maintenance supervisor or the terminal manager. 

Whoever they are, get them into your presence and don't let them get away. They can be an invaluable source of information specific to the product that you've encountered and their knowledge and expertise in working with or around the material on a daily basis can really help fill in the gaps. Those individuals may also hold valuable information about the site of the release.

The knowledge and information that can be obtained using these information sources will be crucial to your successful implementation of those first-responder strategies. Just as importantly, this information is the key to ensuring that everyone goes home safely.

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