This drill was done this year by all the members of my department as well as inviting mutual aid departments to participate. I wrote the drill based on something that really happened to another agency. Even though the below photos were taken on the drill, this incident actually occurred and had some interesting outcomes that I don't want to give away yet but will after we get enough comments as to how would you mitigate this incident. Here goes...
You've been dispatched on a reported vehicle accident involving a stake side truck verses a passenger car. The driver of the passenger car was not injured and had walked away from the scene because of a fire that had started in the back of the stake side truck. When you arrive on scene, this is what you see...
You grab a pair of binoculars to get a close up view of the placards on the truck. Here's what you see:
A bystander that had witnessed the accident walks up to you and hands you this empty bag that had fallen out of the truck during the accident.
: 5-10 mph West Wind blowing the smoke toward a trailer park of senior citizens, many non-ambulatory if they have to get out in a hurry.
: Your on your own for the first 15 minutes of the call when your second in arrives.
: Enroute and wants to know if you want to shut down any of the roads or evacuate.
And now, the rest of the story...
What is critical about this particular call was the fact that the 55 gallon drums contained zinc phosphide. By itself, no problemo... add water and you get a synergistic effect and an off gassing of product that is highly toxic and corrosive. Zinc phosphide is common around grain silos and other places where rats and mice need to be controlled to protect food stuff. Keep in mind how this stuff works when used commercially. Kind of like a gas chamber for rats... Here's the other problem with the stuff, seems that when you add water, you get an exothermic reaction (1+1=uh oh...) and there is flame production as a result coupled with the generation of toxic gases.
So if you were thinking about putting a hose line on the burning 55 gallon drums, think again. Here's the rule about using water. Don't. I'm not saying that there are not any situations where you may have to use water but it should not be your first line of defense. A little used piece of equipment that every fire engine carries is your dry chemical extinguisher. Using the dry chemical extinguisher as the first line of defense minimizes unnecessary cleanup and extension of the hazards involved.
The first priority is life safety for any incident. For this particular one, you have to have confidence in your turnout gear to safely get you to the victim, perform a rescue and then get out, and fast. Generalized decon procedures using a booster line will ensure that you can get out of your turnouts quickly enough, and post decon showering will ensure that you have minimized potential exposure but the most important factor here is that you got the victims out of the toxic cloud, and gave them a chance to survive the chemical insult.
So lets get back to the step by step, how to run a hazmat call pictorial narrative...
You have the first arriving engine company show up on scene, spotting the apparatus uphill, upwind, upstream, up, up, up... don't forget about local weather conditions. Here in Santa Barbara around 17:00 PM the winds switch from an on shore to an off shore wind which means that the wind changes direction 180˚. Tell me that this wouldn't ruin your day. Remote weather monitoring is a must, specially when you are staging equipment and resources that are difficult to move quickly.
I share this photo to enforce the need for people to talk and communicate clearly what the tactics and strategies are for resolving the incident. This is also important because one of your crew members might have seen something that you didn't. Communications are imperative for survival.
The use of monitors is important sometimes but can cause major delays when it comes to performing a rescue. The longer the victim is exposed to hazardous materials, the less likely the person is going to survive. What needs to happen quickly is to make the decision whether or not to perform a rescue. It's your call but as mentioned above, you can save several lives adhering to basic radiological response tactics that include time, distance and shielding. Do all three and you limit your exposure potential.
Sending a team into both recon and do a quick grab and run for this particular incident was the right thing to do. The hazards involved were primarily exposure to toxic gases and smoke. Your PPE and SCBA protect you from this with one key exception... dermal exposure.
When something burns, you get what is called products of decompostition which contains aldehydes, ketones and organic vapors and mists. Remember the routes of exposure from Toxicology 101... you can inhale it, have it absorb through your skin, you can ingest it and in some cases where there is a puncture injury you can have it injected into your body. These firefighters and victim require immediate decon, post-gross decon soap and tepid water showers (too cold = hypothermia / too hot = opening up pores and increasing exposure potential).
Firefighters can be seen here performing a quick rescue, and note the fire extinguisher sitting next to the vehicle. The crews were given extra points remembering to take a dry chem to deal with the fire. We didn't actually make them use the extinguisher but verbally, they reported that they had knocked down the fire and were performing a victim rescue.
Once the victims have been taken to a safe staging area, immediate EMS can start to occur. Remember that ABC's are really important and finding a way to reduce exposure quickly is imperative. You can accomplish this with at least carrying and providing for patients NIOSH-Approved N95 Disposable Particulate Respirators. Every engine company should carry a couple of boxes of these for the public as well for themselves. Click here
for a listing of approved NIOSH manufacturers.
Patient care is easy to remember when it comes to dealing with a contaminated victim...
A - Airway
B - Breathing
C - Circulation / C-Spine Precautions
D - Decon
E - EMS
F - Forensics / Not everyone survives... think morgues...
G - Go To The
H - Hospital for more definitive care...
Don't forget that the DOT Emergency Response Guide is designed for highway incidents only... NOT fixed facility incidents. Look for some future discussions or on the Hazmat WMD Responder site for more definitive information on this in the future.
: You might kind of get the hint that I am passionate about this topic. Without sharing the department or the name of the Captain that I spoke with, I wanted to share what really happened on this call...
The engine company that responded to reported 55 gallon drums smoking in the back of a semitrailer also happened to be the hazmat team. They responded to the incident in a typical Type I engine with four firefighters. Using the ERG... the engine company made the decision to extinguish the visible flames with a 1-1/2" hose line with a TFT nozzle. As soon as the water was applied to the burning material, a violent exothermic reaction occurred, driving the firefighters out of the semitrailer. The decision was made to make entry into the trailer again but with the goal of removing the wood pallet and the four drums sitting on top. Once the drums were removed, the hose line was again extended and water sprayed onto this material (zinc phosphide).
Eventually, the decision was reached to use dry chem, which immediately both extinguished the fire as well as provide a sealing layer of dry chemical powder that limited vapor production.
There wasn't anything remarkable that happened after the call but something did happen a day later...
One of the firefighters who was downwind of the smoke and flames that were generated with the application of water left for home the next morning, headed for the Colorado River with his family to enjoy each others company, vacationing and having fun. Instead, the firefighter 36-hours after the incident was coughing up bright red blood and was bleeding from a large cyst that had formed in his esophagus. This firefighter was exposed via dermal exposure and it didn't take much... The firefighter survived but it is unknown at this time whether the firefighter suffered any long term problems as a result of this exposure.
If you are not totally sure as to how to handle this call or calls like it, please visit the Hazmat WMD Responders page for more detailed information.
If I can be of assistance with your hazmat team, response, inspections or equipment, don't hesitate to drop me a line.
"It's all about being able to go home in the morning..."
Stay safe, Mike from Santa Barbara