Hazardous materials response and USAR

CarolinaFireJournal - By Capt. Mark J. Schmitt
By Capt. Mark J. Schmitt EFO
01/23/2014 -

Ask anyone what they think of when the term USAR is mentioned, and you will probably get a response having to do with 9/11, Oklahoma City, Technical Rescue, etc. Very few, if any, would answer hazardous materials response. In spite of this, the Hazardous Materials Specialist is an integral part of any USAR deployment. This is due to the high probability of hazardous materials or hazardous conditions being present at a USAR incident that a Hazardous Materials Specialist or Technician is uniquely prepared to respond.


Air monitoring is one of the most important functions a Hazardous Materials Specialist can perform on any incident. This especially applies to a USAR/Technical Rescue event. Several conditions need to be monitored on a continuous basis throughout the incident. Oxygen concentrations must be closely monitored. While respiratory protection in the form of Air Purifying Respirators (APRs) is often worn due to dust and other particulates in the air, this protection is of little use if the oxygen concentration drops below 19.5 percent — the OSHA recommended minimum oxygen content for entry into a given area. Keep in mind that an oxygen enriched atmosphere — oxygen concentration above 23.5 percent — can be just as dangerous. Air monitoring is critical, especially in collapse and a trench rescue situation as there is also the danger that the team member may actually be exposed to a substance before they can actually smell it.

There are other elements that need to be monitored in addition to oxygen concentration. Is there a flammable atmosphere present? If so, what precautions (i.e. PPE, ventilation, hose line placement, etc.) must be taken? Is there a toxic atmosphere present? A toxic atmosphere can be caused by the normal products of combustion, oxygen displacement, or special circumstances — such as phosgene being produced by burning Freon. Radiation is another element that first responders must be concerned with given the current threat of terrorism. When entering a collapsed building, do you know if it was caused by a ruptured gas main or a large “dirty” bomb? Are there any chemical or biological agents present? The Hazardous Materials Specialist is the individual capable of determining safe entry levels as they relate to Lower Explosive Limits and Radiation Dose Rates.

Before anyone from the USAR team begins to work, a thorough reconnaissance is made in order to determine the strategic goals and tactical objectives of the operation. This reconnaissance may be made on the ground, through the air, through photographs or a combination of all three. The Hazardous Materials Specialist should be a part of this reconnaissance in order to determine the possible presence of hazardous materials. While the USAR Specialists are looking for structural stability, areas of possible rescue for trapped occupants — the Hazardous Materials Specialist is looking for clues that could indicate the presence of hazardous materials in the forms of container shapes, piping, container markings, occupancy type, etc. This survey is ongoing throughout the incident.

The hazardous materials portion of a USAR response is incident specific. As with any incident, there are certain functions that can be accomplished by personnel certified as Hazardous Materials Technicians or Specialists. Other functions can be accomplished by those certified at the Hazardous Materials Operations level. These Operations Level functions are defensive in nature only. These defensive functions are actions taken that do not involve intentional contact with the material in question. Examples of defensive tactics include notification, evacuation, vapor suppression, diking, damming or diverting and eliminating ignition sources. The Hazardous Materials Specialist can direct USAR team members or other first responders in these important functions while leaving offensive tactics — such as plugging and patching, where intentional contact may be made with the hazardous material — to a Hazardous Materials Team.

Decontamination is something that must not be overlooked on a USAR incident, whether it is technical or emergency in nature. The Hazardous Materials Specialist must look at the incident and the materials involved and assist the USAR team commander in making a determination as to what kind of decontamination is needed, if it is needed at all. While it is true that the USAR team members should NOT be coming in contact with any hazardous materials on purpose, the chance always exists that something unforeseen may happen. If a USAR team member is exposed to a hazardous material, then they must be decontaminated as soon as possible, both for their protection and for quick transport to a medical facility. If the team is engaged in patient rescue or body recovery operations at a collapse scene, there is a very good possibility that they will come in contact with all manner of bodily fluids such as blood, urine, feces, etc. It is imperative that they be decontaminated as soon as possible. At the very least, they MUST be decontaminated at the end of their scheduled work period.

This decontamination will reduce the chance of cross contamination. If we routinely wash our hands after every medical call, shouldn’t we also clean ourselves up after our scheduled work period? The Hazardous Materials Specialist is well trained in the area of decontamination and can make the determinations as to what kind of decontamination is required, what kind of solution is to be used and how a patient or team member should be decontaminated. Do NOT make the mistake and assume that decontamination is not needed because there are no chemicals present.

Were the wet spots the team was crawling through the result of a broken water pipe or a ruptured sewer line? Err on the side of caution and be safe rather than sorry. Everyone needs to be decontaminated at the very least at the end of their shift if there is the slightest doubt that they have become contaminated with anything.

While all members of the USAR team are trained to a certain level of EMT certification, it is the Hazardous Materials Specialist who is responsible for providing assistance to medical personnel — either on transport units or receiving hospitals — regarding chemical injuries and exposures. Some chemical exposures can be treated simply, while others require complex treatments and exotic antidotes. The Hazardous Materials Specialist provides this information in several ways. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) may be available for the Hazardous Materials Specialist to interpret. Computer databases may also be consulted. These databases can be installed on existing USAR laptops, but it would be beneficial to have a separate laptop available for Hazardous Materials support. Printouts can be made and faxed directly to the receiving hospitals or given to the transport units. The Hazardous Materials Specialist can also fall back on their years of experience as well.

While the Hazardous Materials Specialist is a highly technical position, it should not be construed that they are “separate” from the rest of the USAR team. They are an integral part of it and several of their general responsibilities are exactly the same as the rest of the team members. These responsibilities include, but are not limited to, documenting all related information for after-action reports (especially as they pertain to any hazardous materials), adhering to all safety procedures, personnel and equipment accountability, equipment maintenance and calibration (both HazMat and USAR) and any other additional tasks assigned as part of the team’s mission. The Hazardous Materials Specialist should also ensure that an MSDS is on file for every hazardous material carried by the USAR team. This includes every day items such as gasoline, cleaning solutions and bar oil for chain saws.

We have discussed some of the functions of the Hazardous Materials Specialist in general. Now let’s take a look at how the theory turns into practice once the USAR team has been deployed into the field.

The Hazardous Materials Specialist must gather as much information as possible on the hazardous materials present from the local jurisdictions. This information is available through Fire Department Pre-Plans, MSDSs, Tier II Reports, etc. Tier II forms require basic facility identification information, employee contact information for both emergencies and non-emergencies, and information about chemicals stored or used at the facility. Facilities covered by The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) must submit an emergency and hazardous chemical inventory form to the LEPC, the SERC and the local fire department annually. This information is then used to check on the local capabilities of EMS providers and receiving facilities to ascertain their capabilities for handling exposed and/or contaminated victims. It must also be noted how many victims can be handled and transported as well. Is air transport available?

A sketch must be made of the general area after conducting a site survey. The following should be noted on the sketch:

  • Topography
  • Visible structure damage, especially to critical facilities
  • Present weather conditions and forecasts
  • Presence of smoke, vapors, flames, stratifications, etc.
  • Location and status of major fixed facilities and transportation routes within five miles of the site

The Hazardous Materials Specialist is also responsible for establishing and maintaining the Decontamination Corridor. Can a local engine company handle decontamination? Must decontamination be a full-blown decontamination corridor set up and staffed by a local Hazardous Materials Team? This depends upon the extent of the incident, number of victims and the hazardous materials involved, if any.

Finally, documentation is the key. How many times have we been told, “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen”? Document all of the equipment used, calibration of meters and all of their readings throughout the incident (including times and locations), resources consulted, hazardous materials and conditions encountered, etc. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) utilizes the ICS 200 series of forms to be used for incident documentation. This information should be forwarded to the person that will draft the final report upon the team’s demobilization. The role of hazardous materials in the incident must not be overlooked given the fact that problems due to an exposure may not become evident until months or even years after the event.

The Hazardous Materials Specialist should be a regular member of a Hazardous Materials team as opposed to being a regular member of the USAR team that had been detailed into that slot. The responsibilities of the position require someone that not only has been trained in the area of hazardous materials response and mitigation, but also has a wealth of practical knowledge and years of experience to fall back on in order to make those tough decisions that the team leaders will be looking to them for assistance. Some jurisdictions may have the same team responsible for both Hazmat and USAR response. Other jurisdictions may split this responsibility between two teams. In order to be an integral part of the USAR team, the Hazardous Materials Specialist should have some exposure to USAR training in order to fully understand how their efforts affect the entire operation. If the Hazardous Materials Specialist is a member of a Hazardous Materials team and not a full-time member of the USAR team, they should train with the USAR team on a regular basis in order to know what is expected of them and what they can expect from the team in return. Keep in mind that they are a part of the USAR team, even though they are not often recognized as such.

Mark Schmitt is Captain/Hazmat Specialist for the Greensboro Fire Department in Greensboro, N.C., and a veteran of over 20 years in the fire service. The majority of his career has been spent in special operations. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master of Public Administration in Emergency Management. Schmitt has taught numerous hazardous materials courses for the Greensboro Fire Department, local community colleges and the North Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal in addition to serving on several hazardous materials related committees at the local and state level.
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