FEATURE | No Time to Lose
Preparation, Quick Thinking are Essential
for Emergency Response and Analysis
BY GLENN C. MILLNER AND PAUL A. NONY
NO TIME TO LOSE
The nature of emergencies is that cir- cumstances often change quickly. How ell the responding parties adjust to those changes determines the effective- ness of mitigation efforts to protect workers and the public. Accidents involving hazardous materi- als must be evaluated and approached
with great care. The absence of visible
warning labels, placards, etc. does not
guarantee that the material is harmless.
The first step is to call for help and notify local emergency response personnel.
Remain a safe distance upwind and use
binoculars to survey the area. Provide as
much detail as possible, including your
name, location, and telephone number;
the location of the incident; the type of
vehicle or container involved; wind direction and speed; the nature of any injuries;
the locations of injured or threatened people; the presence of smoke, fire, or fumes;
the presence of marking, labels, or placards; and carrier or facility name. Note
surrounding hazards, the quantity and
types of vehicles, the containers involved,
and any visible damage or leakage. Also
note accessibility to the site, possible escape routes, weather conditions and topo-graphical features such as bodies of water.
Try to ensure that all unnecessary people are clear of the site. Do not smoke or
use flares or shut-off engines, and resist
the urge to run to the accident site and
rescue injured personnel until after the
materials are identified and the nature
and severity of the hazard is assessed.
To allocate resources rapidly and appropriately, you must understand the
hazards, the location of the incident, the
availability of equipment, the training
and capabilities of the personnel, and
the incident’s potential to “grow.” Planning, training and communication are
vital for making an appropriate analysis.
For example, your analysis of a 1,000-
gallon diesel fuel spill in the parking lot
of a truck stop will vary greatly depending on whether the runoff leads to a
storm water collection pond or to a
stream where a water utility has an intake for the potable water system.
First responders make evacuation decisions based on the North American Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG)
developed by the U.S. Department of
Transportation and Transport Canada. The
ERG provides general information about
chemicals, but it has limited applicability.
It is intended to be used only during the
first 30 minutes of a response to a hazardous materials release, and thirty minutes is rarely enough time to begin a
significant evacuation or shelter-in-place
action. Also, certain chemicals may fall
into the same ERG classification despite
possessing different degrees of toxicity.
Finally, the downwind hazard distances
suggested for certain chemicals either exceed the reasonable capacity for evacuation or may over-predict the actual impact.
In general, the earlier data are available, the sooner decisions can be based
on reality rather than conjecture. We
have found that a combination of real-time monitoring and real-time plume
dispersion modeling is a better foundation for making evacuation decisions.
With hazmat incidents, first responders often have difficulty determining the
exact chemical(s) released. Several factors
contribute to this confusion: chemicals
are often transported under their product
or trade name, and are placarded by hazard code or United Nations Guide. The
product or chemical can best be identified by referencing the chemical’s Chemical Abstract Services number (CAS#).
Next, the responder must obtain critical
information about the chemical’s properties to determine its principle hazards and
environmental fate (i.e., how it will behave and move in the environment). If the
release involves a mixture of chemicals,
we ask the manufacturer for the CAS#
and a photo of the label, the mixture’s purity (the percentage of each chemical in
the product), and the chemical form of the
product (e.g., solid, dust/granule, liquid,
gas at room temperature). If the product is
on fire, responders must consider potentially hazardous decomposition or combustion products for human health. We
insist on obtaining the exact MSDS for the
product in question, not a generic MSDS,
because differences in information can affect how we respond.
Some of the potential problems we
have observed in timely responses in-
clude the following:
• Decision makers wait for more infor-
mation before initiating a response.
• The on-call team cannot be reached or
does not exist.
• Response equipment is in the “hot
zone” and cannot be accessed.
• Air monitoring equipment is neither
calibrated nor immediately ready to
• Monitoring equipment is not capable
of measuring the products involved in
the release in real time.
While classical industrial hygiene
monitoring is important to ensure the
safety of workers, real-time monitoring
equipment is essential to make quick
tactical decisions during a response.
All responders have the difficult task of
determining quickly how to make a proportioned response. Many responders use
the quantity of material or the substance
spilled as a guide. We use a different