Hazmat: rapid recon and assessment

CarolinaFireJournal - Stephen Marks
Stephen Marks
10/18/2009 -

Throughout our careers, emergency service instructors have been teaching us to slow down when it comes to our response involving hazardous materials. Over the years, we have heard that message again and again. In fact, we have become very proficient in taking our time when responding into a hazardous materials incident. Certainly our main concern has been for the safety of our personnel. However, is it possible that we now take entirely too long to enter the proverbial Hot Zone?


I do not advocate a rapid entry for reconnaissance and assessment at the expense of personnel safety. Furthermore, rapid recon and assessment is not necessarily appropriate for every incident. There may be instances where the task and the hazard are identified prior to arrival and a methodical and lengthy approach to hazmat response operations is essential. Needless to say, prolonged and intensive operations are stressful for responders. In certain instances, a rapid recon and assessment may reduce the duration and severity of the incident.

I do believe that we can safely respond into a hazmat incident more effectively if we better understand the principles of rapid recon and assessment. Safety is always the priority. The vast majority of our hazmat calls are not “Level A” type incidents. However, if we insist on performing a full blown, on scene physical exam for our entry and back-up teams, dress them out in fully encapsulated, gas tight personal protective equipment (PPE), and establish a 15 stage decontamination line prior to making that first entry. We may not be operating as safely or efficiently as we might think.

In order to make an entry for rapid recon and assessment, we must first understand some basics.

In what state of matter is the product: solid, liquid or vapor? Clearly, volatile liquids and vapors present the greatest danger.

How do we know what state of matter we are dealing with? We should be able to identify the container from information provided by the caller and/or by viewing it from a safe distance.

Is it a pressure or non-pressure vessel?

Is there any indication of vapors emitting from the container?

From this initial information, we can make some initial suppositions on the state of matter of the product.

In many cases, we can further determine potential dangers of the product. Is it flammable, reactive and/or toxic? Clues like marking, placards, labels, shipping papers and MSDSs can help us to better qualify the hazards we face. This critical component of raid recon and assessment takes place before we ever make entry. The key is to gather as much information and make the best determination possible in order to proceed safely. Our initial recon team can then confirm and/or modify these details upon entry.

We all agree that protecting our respiratory system is of the utmost importance. That generally necessitates the use of SCBA. So now the question becomes, what type of PPE is appropriate for the initial recon? Our choices are most often either turn out gear or chemical protective clothing (CPC) ensemble. Remember that our initial recon team is not being sent into the Hot Zone to remediate the incident, but rather to quickly provide recon and assessment of the situation so that an operational plan can be developed.

If the product is flammable, explosive or reactive, turn out gear provides the safest PPE. If the product is toxic, CPC is the best choice. But what if the product is flammable and toxic, or we just aren’t sure what the primary hazard might be? Fortunately, we often know the primary hazards (based on our preentry assessment) and we know that not many products are both flammable and toxic. Nevertheless, there are enough occasions when our level of confidence just isn’t where we need it to be. What do we do now?

Effective rapid recon and assessment relies upon the use of appropriate monitoring equipment. The essentials include pH paper, a four gas combustible gas indicator (CGI), a photo ionization device (PID), a radiological (RAD) meter, a temperature measuring device (commonly referred to as a Temp Gun), and most importantly, some common sense. These tools, when used properly, can provide us with critical entry data to keep us safe and help us determine proper remediation actions. Let’s see how these tools compliment our choice of PPE.

As we consider which PPE is appropriate, limited pre-entry medical monitoring can be conducted. I believe that a basic set of vitals is sufficient for the rapid recon and assessment entry team. At the same time, a small handline can be established for decon. Remember, the initial entry team should not be engaging the product or become grossly contaminated. The back-up team can serve as the emergency decon team using the handline as necessary.

If we decide that flammability (including explosive and reactive) is our primary concern and choose to don turn out gear for our rapid recon and assessment entry, we should be mindful of encountering any vapor or liquid. Our first check should be with our pH paper to assure that the product is not corrosive. An acidic or caustic product could quickly compromise our turn out gear PPE as well as the remainder of our monitoring equipment. If the product is highly corrosive as indicated by a color change to red or blue on our pH paper, we should immediately withdraw from the area.

If the product is not corrosive, we should continue our investigation by checking for flammability (CGI), the presence of organic vapors (PID), the presence of radiation (RAD) and the potential for exothermic reactivity, especially within the container (Temp Gun). If any of the readings exceed your specific allowable parameters, immediately withdraw from the area. Otherwise, report the readings and continue with further recon and assessment. During the recon and assessment process, the entry team should communicate a vivid, detailed description of the incident scene and radio this information back to research and the team leader. Identify the container as accurately as possible, noting any product name(s) or other identifying information. Describe the physical properties of any visible product and provide further results from the monitoring process. Remember, this is a fact finding mission so gather as much data in the greatest detail as possible.

During any process involving hazardous materials, we should be careful in how we maneuver through the area. Do not walk through or otherwise spread the product. This results in personal contamination and the potential for cross contamination if multiple products are involved. As we conclude our rapid recon and assessment, we should radio to the decon team any potential exposure. While gross decon is often not necessarily, some level of decon may be needed depending on the circumstances. Use the common sense tool in this situation.

In the other scenario, if we decide that toxicity is our primary concern and choose to don CPC, we should again be mindful of encountering any vapor or liquid. While we want to closely monitor for the presence of a flammable environment, we should assure that the product is not corrosive by use of pH paper. If the product is not corrosive, we should then immediately sample it for flammability (CGI). If product is flammable, we should immediately withdraw from the area.

If the product is corrosive and suspected to be flammable, I am inclined to monitor for flammability even if it means that I may destroy the sensors in the CGI. There are not many corrosive flammable products that we encounter on a routine basis, so if in doubt, make sure that you are not in a flammable environment while wearing CPC (which provides us no fire protection).

If the product is not flammable, continue monitoring for the presence of organic vapors (PID), the presence of radiation (RAD) and the potential for exothermic reactivity, especially within the container (Temp Gun). If any of the readings exceed your specific allowable parameters, immediately withdraw from the area. Otherwise, report the readings and continue with further recon and assessment.

Remember that rapid recon and assessment is used to obtain and/or verify situational hazards. In some cases, the incident can be quickly remediated in a safe manner. Examples might include uprighting a drum, turning a vale or segregating materials. However, some situations may require specialized tools and equipment or require the entry team to work for a prolonged period in a hostile environment. In these cases, it is best served for the entry team to withdraw. An operational plan can then be formulated and fresh personnel deployed to remediate the incident.

Rapid recon and assessment allows responders to quickly gauge the severity of the incident. In years past, we have assumed a worst case scenario and built our entry and response around that supposition. With our tools and knowledge, hazmat teams can now safely expedite this process. We must have confidence in our equipment and our procedures. Like anything else, practice makes perfect. I truly believe when used properly, the rapid recon and assessment process will yield a safer, more efficient overall incident response.

Stephen Marks serves as a Certified Emergency Manager with Guilford County Emergency Services. He has a diverse background in emergency services administration, training and response with experience in Fire, EMS and HazMat operations. Working in the realm of emergency management, Marks is responsible for emergency planning and training as well as disaster response operations and community preparedness education. He can be contacted through his website at www.scmarks.com.
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