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Go/no-go: Offensive hazmat operations

Evaluating the operational period and logistics, plus the “tactical trifecta,” to gauge response level


“While hazmat operations may entail many of the same considerations that we use on fire suppression incidents, these operations are different enough that they must be treated with an additional set of special considerations within the go/no-go decision-making space,” Hall writes.

Photo/Jeff Hall

By Jeff Hall

The go/no-go doctrine aims to simplify the strategic and tactical decision-making processes that guide firefighter actions on emergency responses, including hazardous materials response.

It is relatively common for fire departments to include hazmat response in their scopes of duty. While hazmat operations may entail many of the same considerations that we use on fire suppression incidents, these operations are different enough that they must be treated with an additional set of special considerations within the go/no-go decision-making space.

Offensive hazmat operations entail strategies, tactics and tasks for containment, confinement and mitigation of hazardous materials at the source of a release. As such, offensive hazmat operations require competent, trained hazmat technicians as well as capable support from firefighters trained at the awareness and operations level (in accordance with NFPA 470/1072). In addition, trained technicians and support personnel must be adequately equipped with proper PPE, tools and assessment resources.

Here’s how go/no-go decision-making plays out in the hazmat incident environment.

Operational period

The time frame of an incident, which we often refer to as the operational period, can be quite a bit longer on a serious hazmat response than on a structure fire. The front part of that time frame includes initial size-up, site security and zoning, hazard and risk assessment, incident action plan, staging of resources and, finally, the deployment of teams for decontamination and hot zone operations. This period contrasts sharply with the much shorter time frame for decision-making when engaged in fire suppression.

Bottom line: The potential time frame of a hazmat incident has a major implication – we must take the opportunity to slow down our pace to make the optimal hazard/risk assessment.

Operational trifecta

The go/no-go decision starts before the call. Operationally, an organization must evaluate three factors of readiness:

  1. Staffing
  2. Training
  3. Equipment

If a fire service organization has been unable or unwilling to bolster staffing, facilitate ongoing training, and procure equipment for a given hazmat operation, then that operation should be a no-go prior to the call for service. While many organizations face a constant tension regarding budgets and funding priorities, they must make responsible and reasonable evaluations of their abilities for hazmat response. Organizations that have tasked themselves with hazmat response, but face significant staffing and equipment challenges, may be prudent to consider mutual-aid agreements specifically for high-risk responses.

Bottom line: If any piece of the operational trifecta is absent or deficient, then offensive hazmat operations should be considered a no-go, and the focus should be shifted to defensive interventions and/or protective actions.

Tactical trifecta

Tactically, a fire service organization tasked with the possibility of offensive hazmat operations must equip and train its personnel to properly evaluate three factors for offensive hazmat operations:

  1. Product
  2. Container
  3. Intervention

Hazmat responses involve the evaluation of a hazardous product, a container (as well as the environment) and prospective intervention. Simply put, each of these factors is part of the hazard assessment. If the organization’s response team lacks the ability to comprehensively gather and process the appropriate information, then a proper hazard assessment becomes impossible, forcing the team to rely on luck. From transportation incidents to fixed facilities, the competent response team must be ready to contextualize the hazard and requisite offensive intervention. Next, that information must be incorporated into the decision-making algorithm of the incident command structure. The incident command structure needs to ensure that safety briefings are integral to every offensive operation and that entry team feedback is allowed to help guide incident objectives.

Bottom line: We must take great care to consider product, container and intervention together, rather than becoming tunnel-visioned on one or two. If an offensive intervention will not lead to significant product mitigation, then offensive operations should be considered a no-go, and the focus should be shifted to defensive interventions and protective actions.

Real-world decision-making

Let’s consider how this could play out in a real-world scenario.

An overturned DOT-406 carrying 6,000 gallons of gasoline is positioned on its driver’s side after making impact with an interstate guardrail. The driver is accounted for with no injuries to himself or other civilians. A large gasoline spill is seen around the vessel and gasoline is also pouring from a gash 24 inches horizontally and 8 inches vertically with irregular edges on the underside of the vessel about 1 foot above the ground. A 360 size-up reveals no fire, no endangered civilians, and no immediate structural exposures. The fire department sends a hazmat response, and the IC’s initial incident action plan calls for the department’s hazmat team to perform an offensive intervention by patching and plugging the visible hole on the underside.

When determining the necessity, safety and appropriateness of offensive action, the incident command structure should address the following questions related to the operational trifecta:

  • Staffing: Do we have enough qualified personnel and/or access to mutual aid partners?
  • Training: Does the level of personnel training meet the demands of the incident and the proposed intervention?
  • Equipment: Is the arsenal of equipment adequate to achieve the proposed intervention?

Then shift to the tactical trifecta:

  • Product: What are the physical and chemical characteristics of the product?
  • Container: What are the characteristics of the container and how severe is the damage assessment? How is the product physically interacting with the terrain and environment?
  • Intervention: Given all of the previous factors, is an offensive intervention (leak control) within the scope of our staffing, training and equipment and would it lead to reasonable chance of significantly mitigating the product?

The go/no-go decision: Assume in this scenario that we have four hazmat technicians and eight awareness/operations-level firefighters to perform all essential support functions, such as air monitoring, vapor suppression, decontamination, suppression and rehab. Let’s also assume that the training levels of our hazmat technicians are sufficient for highway carriers. The team has access to water-activated plugging compounds and non-pneumatic patches.

The hazard and risk analysis should immediately acknowledge the time lapse of the incident prior to arrival (meaning that a high amount of gasoline has already leaked from the carrier). Next, the analysis should recognize (from the specification plate) that the aluminum body construction of the DOT-406 makes it extremely likely that the side in contact with the ground has been breached, meaning that product is probably leaking where we cannot see it. The analysis should then determine whether the team’s leak control resources can contain the fluid pressure of the gasoline leak through the visible gash. Finally, a comprehensive safety risk assessment should be made to determine whether the team should place firefighters at risk operating directly on top of a Class B fuel.

Does consideration of the operational and tactical trifecta support the IC’s decision for an offensive intervention? Or should the focus be on defensive efforts such as protecting waterways and drains, confining as much product as possible to limit the spread, controlling ignition sources and continuing to suppress vapors?

In this scenario, it appears that we may have enough trained and qualified personnel. However, our equipment is most likely unable to contain the product due to the size of the hole as well as the intensity of the fluid pressure. A proper damage assessment should help us determine that the aluminum body of the tank most likely ruptured upon impact with the guard barrier and/or ground. Accordingly, we can expect an offensive leak control attempt to be ineffective while placing our personnel at excessive risk of injury or death. The primary hazard is flammability, and the effectiveness of the foam depends on the type of foam, proper application, and degree of disturbance, especially since the IC wants to send firefighters directly into the product. Furthermore, we risk damaging expensive structural PPE, causing logistical complications. Considering our size-up, operational trifecta, tactical trifecta, and risk vs. reward considerations, the correct decision for offensive actions is no-go.

Final thought

An organization’s overall size-up of its hazmat response abilities, limitations and resources should be reflected in standard operating guidelines (SOGs). This requires periodic and intentional evaluation of an organization’s response needs and capabilities. Gaps in capabilities may be addressed by mutual-aid agreements, relationships with contractors, and succession planning. At the field level, it is paramount for hazmat-trained firefighters and fire officers to understand and evaluate the factors of the operational and tactical trifecta so that our incident objectives appropriately reflect life safety priorities within the confines of our readiness and resources.

About the author

Jeff Hall is a company officer and hazmat instructor who serves on his department’s hazmat response team. With a Master of Public Health specializing in industrial hygiene from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Hall has conducted research on various health and safety topics related to the fire service. Hall is particularly interested in and committed to the continued development of special operations within the fire service.