NFPA 472 addresses the minimum levels of competence required by responders to emergencies involving hazardous materials/weapons of mass destruction. It covers the competencies required for awareness, operation, technician, and specialist levels of responders. It also addresses the competencies for Safety Officers, Officers, and Incident Commanders.
Modern firefighting has seen many changes to building construction and the introduction of many man made compounds that has changed the way both techniques and approach are concerned. These modern factors have changed what used to be viewed as a traditional firefighting emergency into a potential haz-mat incident. NFPA 472 provides for appropriate levels of training to deal with these incidents in order both to isolate and to mitigate, while ensuring both the public and responders are safe. It needs to be stressed that Class B fires such as those involving hydrocarbons are or should be categorized as a haz-mat emergency. The term “hurry up and wait” has been used when describing these incidents as it is critical that the product that responders will be dealing with is identified prior to attempting to mitigate, this may mean establishing an initial large perimeter ensuring that proper evacuation is initiated. This safe zone may be extremely large until further information can be obtained about the substance including its characteristics.
NFPA 472 training focuses on use of resources in order to identify the substance in question and understanding the chemical properties of the substances. The terms vapour density, specific gravity, flashpoint, explosive limits, BLEVE, toxicity, and miscibility are tought as vital to understanding and predicting how a substance will react and how it will be mitigated. A simple example of this is the term vapour density which is the molecular weight of a vapour as compared to the weight of air, anything heavier than air such as gasoline vapours are extremely volatile, while those that are lighter than air may be more easily dissipated. The different levels of training address the competency of the responders and if their actions will be directly offensive or more defensive in nature.
We will now examine a recognized eight step process when dealing with a haz mat incident. This process will allow for an incident commander to properly deal and mitigate any incident while utilizing all resources available including responders based on their level of 472 training.
STEP One involves site management and control. In this step incident command is established along with a command team who will determine the initial safe perimeter and approach in order to take charge of the impact site. This will include evacuation zones and identifying the hazard zones (hot, warm, cold), as well as creating a secure staging area for rescuers and other responders.
STEP two involves identifying the problem. In this step command is attempting to understand what materials are onsite and look for breaches in containment. In this step a research group is typically set up to look for identifying placards, MSDS sheets, or container shapes thus allowing them to isolate the compound name and use guide books in order to determine characteristics. From this it will be determined how best the substance can be controlled, and also predict what could occur next based on the nature of the materials, their location, and the proximity to workers or the general public. During this step the set hazard zones may be adjusted.
STEP three involves hazard and risk evaluation. At this point the ongoing risk of the spill or leakage including the potential for fire or explosion will be evaluated. Physical symptoms being experienced by individuals who were directly impacted by the incident will be accessed. From this it may provide for more information about the materials involved and the concentration of the substance. Examples being that headaches may indicate the presence of carbon monoxide, sweet odours could indicate benzene or hydrocarbons, burning eyes and throat typically is an indicator of some sort of acid. During this step the set hazard zones may also be adjusted.
STEP four is protective clothing and equipment. Any closer investigation of any spill or breach involving a hazardous material will involve the requirement for the use of proper protective gear and equipment. This can involve everything from self-contained breathing apparatus to full coverage haz mat suits (termed level A). Monitoring equipment should also be deployed to gauge air quality, radioactive levels, or other air quality issues. Information concerning proper level of protection will be determined based on the physical properties of the substance being dealt with.
STEP five consists of information management and resource coordination. Information sharing is critical, both within the organization and with external sources including the news media. All resources should be mobilized to help ensure that the hazard area is protected from entry by outside parties, keeping in mind the hazard area could well stretch for a few kilometers or larger. Response teams will also have to be directed to the site and given all available information in order to take proper actions.
STEP six is the implementation of response objectives. At this point the incident commander will implement a plan in order to mitigate the incident based on the information received and processed. This action plan will ensure that all measures are in place in order to ensure safety while also getting the hazardous material under control.
STEP seven is decontamination. Decontamination is once again based on the nature and properties of the substance rescuers are exposed to, those performing the decontamination will also be required to be outfitted in a set level of protective clothing. Decontamination will include, not only the rescuers that have been exposed, but also all tools that were used in the mitigation. A further factor will be the containment of contaminated water being used as part of the decontamination.
STEP eight is terminating the incident. This final step has four components: 1) incident debriefing to be conducted immediately after the emergency has passed, and before responders leave the scene; 2) incident critique which evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the overall response; 3) post-incident analysis which provides a formal review of the event; and 4) reporting and documentation.
These eight steps will allow for an incident commander to properly evaluate the situation presented and deploy resources in order to mitigate the emergency. Haz Mat situations are seen daily, whether it be in the form of an oil refinery fire, rail car accident, tanker truck fires or leaks, or industrial incidents. In history firefighters have been needlessly killed by using the approach of an ordinary structure fire without evaluating the source of the fire prior to attacking it. The obvious concern would be are they adequately protected with appropriate PPE, if the substance is water reactive then the typical use of water or foam to extinguisher the fire actually will make the situation worse. There are many more negative outcomes to simply assuming you are dealing with a “typical” structure fire.
Perhaps the most concerning type of haz mat call is a nuclear leak. We can examine recent history a see a series of nuclear reactor “melt downs”. These “melt downs” have occurred on 5 separate occasions all with disastrous outcomes: 1979, Three Mile Island; 1986, Chernobyl; 2011, 3 reactors at Fukushimi- Daiichi. When looking at these numbers it can be predicted that there will be a serious accident every eight years. The nuclear power industry has improved the safety and performance of reactors, and has proposed new safety reactor designs but there is no guarantee that the reactors will be designed, built and operate correctly. Mistakes have occurred as the examples prove; designers of the reactors at Fukushima did not anticipate that a tsunami generated by an earthquake would disable the backup systems that were supposed to stabilize after the earthquake. These events are obviously the worst case scenario for a haz mat team and immediately lead to a defensive operation.
As we become more and more modernized as a society the threat of haz mat incidents grows rapidly. This means that NFPA 472 training along with basic fire training is a clear necessity. A responder cannot necessarily differentiate between a simple fire and a haz mat incident without this level of awareness. Any agency dealing with hydrocarbons whether it is in processing or transportation is dealing with a haz mat situation. As it has always been the fire service is required to deal with a vast variety of incident, haz mat is no different and the potential for these emergencies exist everywhere on the globe!
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