The nasty ‘R’ word is really not so bad

CarolinaFireJournal - Glenn Clapp
Glenn Clapp CHMM, CFPS
10/14/2010 -

You have just arrived on the scene of a major hazmat incident and are looking forward to going into the Hot Zone to use what you have learned in Technician Class to “save the day.” Your well-intentioned plans, however, are derailed when the Hazmat Branch Director tells you that you are now the Research Group Supervisor. The natural response of most hazmat responders would be to hang their head down and trudge over to the hazmat unit, as the “job” of Research Group Supervisor is often the most maligned position in the hazmat organization. This does not have to be the case, as hazmat research can be greatly simplified by knowing how to utilize clues that are presented to the responder to guide research efforts, and by knowing the proper tool to use for the specific research task.


Why Research?

What are we trying to accomplish in terms of conducting research? Our efforts can best be summed up as:

  • Trying to identify what substance we are dealing with
  • The hazards the substance presents
  • The compatibility of our personal protective equipment with the substance
  • Any applicable air monitoring equipment information
  • The protective actions needed to ensure the safety of the public

Conducting hazmat research is one of the most stressful pursuits during the initial phases of a hazmat incident, as the Hazmat Branch Director, Operations Section Chief, Incident Commander, and/or other similar types will be asking “What do we have?” “How is it dangerous to us?” Or, asking other similar questions in rapid-fire succession. One of the best features of modern hazmat units is the provision of a research area in which Research Group personnel can perform their duties without undue distraction — including a lock on the door. Did I say that?

As a basic rule, we need to utilize a minimum of three research sources to serve as a redundant system of checks and balances. This basic tenant serves to highlight any erroneous or out-of-date information. Research sources may also exist in either hard-copy or electronic format. Most electronic research programs can be downloaded for free, or requested at no charge. However, the use of hard-copy resources should not be discounted due to the fact that even the most modern computers may malfunction at the most inopportune time.

As stated above, our first task at hand when performing hazmat research is to identify what we are dealing with. As in all areas of hazmat, we should try the simplest things first. What happens, however, when the identification of a product does not fall easily at hand after speaking with a property representative, consulting shipping papers or an MSDS, or utilizing our “best friend” in the first 15 or 20 minutes of an incident — the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG)?

We should then intuitively rely on the clues present to guide us in the right direction. If we see a four-digit number that we think refers to the nature of the product, we usually think of the UN/NA ID number referenced in the ERG. That is not always the case; however, such a find might be an initial step in the right direction. What if we see a series of numbers separated by dashes (such as 7664-93-9) on the container itself or in shipping papers? We may possibly infer that we are looking at a CAS (Chemical Abstract Service) number that serves as a “social security number” denoting the specific chemical. If we run across a three-letter code (such as SFA), then we may turn to the Chemical Hazards Response Information System (CHRIS) manual published by the U.S. Coast Guard to identify the product from its CHRIS code. If we note a seven-digit number without dashes — such as 4930040 — a Standard Transportation Commodity Classification (STCC) code may be indicated.

STCC codes are prevalent in the railroad industry and were formerly referenced in the Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations (CAMEO) program. Although the CAMEO chemicals database that is a component of the current CAMEOfm program does not contain STCC codes, the downloadable Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders (WISER) program continues to reference some STCC codes. Incidentally, all code references above correspond to Sulfuric Acid.

Once we have identified the product we are dealing with, we then should delve into the hazards presented by the product (i.e. flammability, toxicity, reactivity, etc.). Electronic media that may be used to determine such hazards include the CAMEO Chemicals database, WISER, and the NIOSH Pocket Guide. CAMEO Chemicals and WISER are downloadable at no cost and display the pertinent physical and chemical properties; and toxicological levels of concern for many hazardous chemicals. The NIOSH Pocket Guide is also downloadable at no cost and additionally contains the International Chemical Safety Cards database, which contains much of the same information contained in the Pocket Guide. The Chemical Safety Cards sometimes cover chemicals that the Pocket Guide does not, and vice-versa. The CHRIS manual referenced above will also provide much needed information on the hazards presented by the chemical or chemicals involved. If we need to find the hazards presented when multiple chemicals react with one another, CAMEO Chemicals provides us with a hidden bonus — the Reactivity Worksheet, which will not tell us what substance will be created from the reaction, but will display the hazards presented by the reaction.

Web sites

The programs mentioned in this article can be found at the following locations:

CAMEOfm/CAMEO Chemicals http://epa.gov/oem/content/ cameo/cameo.htm ALOHAhttp://epa.gov/oem/content /cameo/aloha.htm MARPLOT http://epa.gov/oem/content/ cameo/marplot.htm ALOHA Tool for GIS Use http://noaa.gov/ WISER http://nih.gov/ CHRIS Requested from the U.S. Coast Guard NIOSH Pocket Guide http://cdc.gov/niosh/npg/ PPE Compatibility Consult PPE Manufacturer Air Monitoring Relative Response Correction Factors Consult Meter Manufacturer

We should then move on in the natural progression of hazmat research into the area of the compatibility (or incompatibility) of our personal protective equipment (PPE) with the chemical or chemicals involved. The manufacturers of our chemical protective clothing are required to provide use and compatibility information; and also normally provide compatibility information that is usually downloadable from the Internet. Most hazmat technicians will routinely look up the breakthrough time and permeation rate for the suit utilized, but oftentimes will fail to perform similar research for the boots and gloves used. Notable examples of programs that can be used to determine PPE compatibility are the DuPont Permeation Guide, North ezGuide for Gloves; and the On Guard and Tingley boot references.

If we are performing air monitoring activities, we should next determine the pertinent information regarding our monitoring equipment.

If we are utilizing a combustible gas indicator (CGI), photo-ionization detector (PID), or metal oxide sensor, a relative response correction factor must be applied to the meter units presented if we are monitoring for any substance other than what the sensor is calibrated to. The relative response correction factor is multiplied by the meter units to determine the true concentration or percent LEL, as applicable.

Although the manufacturers of air monitoring equipment provide such information with each meter purchased, detailed and more up-to-date correction factors can often be downloaded from the Web sites of meter manufacturers. In addition to the application of a relative response correction factor when using a PID to perform air monitoring, it is helpful to know the ionization potential (IP) of the substance being monitored. A PID utilizes a lamp to ionize (or break apart) the substance being monitored, and as such the user needs to ensure that the lamp used provides a greater energy than the IP of the substance monitored. The IP and lamp energy are expressed in electron volts (eV). The IPs of many substances can be found in the NIOSH Pocket Guide and/or WISER. As an aside for those “hazmat geeks” out there, WISER can be downloaded to a PDA or Smartphone.

The final turn in our research journey takes us down the path of protective actions for the public. We need to determine the best protective actions for our citizens, which may consist of sheltering-in-place, evacuation, or taking no action at all.

The performance of accurate and competent air monitoring to determine the extent of our Hot Zone and the hazard area affecting the population is essential, backed up with the guidance of programs that estimate the hazard zone. The Areal Locations of Hazardous Atmospheres (ALOHA) program that is a component of the CAMEO suite allows the responder to generate a graphical depiction of the hazard zone created from a leak or spill and requires minimal training. The level of concern may be chosen from commonly accepted values or even specified by the user. The plume data generated in ALOHA can then be shared into the Mapping Application for Response, Planning, and Local Operational Tasks program (MARPLOT), also contained in the CAMEO suite and downloadable for free. MARPLOT takes the hazard zone depicted in ALOHA and superimposes it on a GIS map in the proper orientation. We have to remember that the hazard zone depiction is not an absolute (i.e. if the border of the hazard zone bisects a street we are not necessarily safe on one side of the street and in trouble on the other side). In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) even provides a free program that allows the user to superimpose ALOHA hazard zones on ESRI ArcView or ArcMap GIS map layers.

In conclusion, the research function in hazmat response does not have to be the insurmountable task that most hazmat technicians perceive it to be. With a logical approach and the use of commonly available and largely free programs (backed up by hard-copy sources), products can be identified, the hazards determined, the compatibility of our PPE discovered, air monitoring data obtained, and applicable protective actions for the public determined.

As can be seen, the research function is a veritable “dragon” that can easily be slayed. As always, stay safe out there and be sure to visit the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders Web site at www.nchazmat.com.


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Web sites

The programs mentioned in this article can be found at the following locations:

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Glenn Clapp is President of the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders and is a Fire Training Commander (Special Operations) for the High Point Fire Department. He is a Technician-Level Hazmat Instructor, a Law Enforcement Hazmat Instructor, and is a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager and Certified Fire Protection Specialist.

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