Proper Care and Maintenance of Your Blue Canaries

Early this year, my hazmat response unit was dispatched with local law enforcement to a postal facility for an intentional release of an unknown white powder. Law enforcement arrived on scene first and, per their protocols, began an investigation. During this investigation, an officer was inadvertently exposed to the powder and began to exhibit symptoms. Once my unit arrived on scene, decontamination (decon) for the officer was a top priority. As we coordinated decon however, we realized the local law enforcement agency had no protocols regarding decontamination of their personnel and equipment. The resulting confusion caused delay in decon which in turn delayed transport to a healthcare facility. image

Law enforcement officers are commonly the first emergency personnel on scene and they tend to approach those scenes as investigators. They typically do not have the luxury of pre-arrival information that most hazmat units have; they gather that information, identify the scene as a potential hazmat emergency and initiate a hazmat response. Unfortunately, the nature of these tasks leads to an increased risk of unintentional exposure for the officer, which has earned them the nickname “Blue Canaries” in the hazmat world.

First-in officers can offer much information, including symptoms of unprotected exposure to an unknown substance. Unfortunately, some hazmat techs scoff and roll their eyes about an exposed officer. Remember, your average patrol officers are traditionally not hazmat responders. And even if they were, most law enforcement exposures occur when responding to calls categorized as something other than a hazmat response.

These exposed officers are not “civilians” or “victims.” They are emergency responders, just like you. They were exposed performing a critical task to aid in your response. They deserve the same priority in decon you would afford any exposed member of your hazmat unit.

Law enforcement decon carries a completely different set of considerations. Most hazmat teams have trained extensively on technical decon techniques for chemical protective clothing, mass decon practices for large groups of civilians, and emergency decon for critical situations. Many teams also have decon specialists who have trained extensively on best practices to combat certain specific chemical hazards. But we seem to be profoundly uncertain regarding proper decon for law enforcement.

In my department, our priority had been to worry about the people in the uniform and let the law enforcement agency worry about the uniform and equipment. And that had worked pretty well until our postal facility incident. The local law enforcement agency had no protocols regarding the officer’s equipment in the event of possible contamination. However, the officer’s supervisor firmly rejected the idea of the officer’s firearms, ballistics vest, and uniform being sent away in a trash bag for decon. Luckily, the powder was identified as a non-toxic irritant and the equipment could be rinsed and released to the supervisor.

After this call, we decided to create a standard basic decon plan specifically for law enforcement. In the process of researching current best practices, we realized an officer’s equipment presented the most problematic aspect.

Much of the equipment is expensive and, for some agencies, replacement may be difficult. Many agencies will balk at sending items away for “decon through destruction.” Most officers are under strict standing orders to never, under any circumstances, surrender their service weapons. Ballistics vests are, by design, extremely difficult to cut away from a non-ambulatory officer. There could be irreplaceable, sensitive, and/or legally relevant information written in the officer’s notepad, the loss of which could effectively cripple an investigation.

I don’t have a silver bullet solution for all those issues, but I have come across some recommendations that may help. I won’t cover standard decon practices; if you’ve made it this far I assume you are decon-capable.

Unless there is a need for emergency decon, an officer can go through the same technical decon line you will have set up for your entry teams.

Carrying extra decon equipment would be invaluable, including: a locking tote large enough to accommodate an officer’s service rifle if necessary, a smaller lockbox, evidence tape, tags, chain of custody form, several zip top bags, several large trash bags and heavy-duty zip ties. For storage, all the smaller items should easily fit inside the large tote. A non-contaminated officer should act as an agency representative observing the decon process. This officer will act as custodian of any specialized equipment and provide technical assistance to the decon team. The decon leader should determine appropriate PPE for the observer.

A contaminated officer should begin by emptying and clearing his/her weapons. If he or she is unable to do so, the agency representative can assist a decon team member to accomplish this task. Once the weapons are clear, they should be “locked out” by running a zip tie through the open breach to secure it. The officer’s sidearm should be placed in the smaller lockbox along with any ammunition the officer might be carrying. If the officer also has a service rifle, it should be placed in the locking tote.

Any items that could be damaged by water should be removed, such as a notebook, body camera and radio. These items should be put in individual tagged zip top bags and placed in the tote. The bags should clearly state that these items had not been decontaminated.

Bulk contaminants should now be removed, and the officer can perform this task if able. This is not intended to begin wet decon, rather have the officer use dry sterile dressings or decon wipes to remove any loose product. Effective communication is key to success. Decon team members must use simple, clear instructions to walk the officer through this process step by step. Removal of gross contamination here will increase the efficacy of all subsequent decon measures.

Wet Decon

Next, wet decon begins with a fully clothed, thorough head to toe rinse. Advise your decon team not to brush the officer’s bare skin, simply flush with copious amounts of water as in standard civilian decon.

After rinsing, assist the officer in doffing body armor, hat, helmet, gun belt, shoes and gloves. If necessary, the agency representative will advise the decon team on proper removal techniques for specialized equipment. Each item should be put in separate tagged trash bags, sealed with evidence tape, and placed in the tote.

Next is another fully clothed, thorough head to toe rinse.

Assist the officer in doffing their uniform down to t-shirt and underwear. Cut the uniform only if absolutely necessary. Place the uniform in the tote in a tagged trash bag.

Then another head to toe rinse.

If the contamination type dictates, the officer must now completely disrobe and receive a final rinse. As with any subject, pay as much respect to dignity as possible. Make every attempt to shield the decon line from the public. If the officer does not wish the agency representative to observe this aspect of decon, accommodate this request. If possible, have clothes waiting at the decon line exit. You wouldn’t allow the public to watch your team members disrobe, show the officer the same respect.

Once the officer is through the decon line, the tote should be closed, locked and sealed with evidence tape. The chain of custody form and a catalog of contents should be filled out and attached to the outside of the tote in a waterproof envelope. Then the tote exterior should be thoroughly decontaminated. Once that is complete, custody may be transferred back to the law enforcement agency or whomever that agency wishes. Any recipient must acknowledge that the items inside have not been thoroughly decontaminated and only qualified personnel employing appropriate PPE should open the tote once the contaminant is identified. Whenever this tote changes hands, the chain of custody form must be used.

Each officer deconned should have their effects placed in a separate tote.

K-9 Unit Decon

In the event of an exposed K-9 unit, the canine and his partner will need to go through decon, and best practice seems to be to put them through together. The handler knows his K-9 partner best, and keeping them together could make the process less stressful for the canine. If possible, allow the handler to remove any equipment from the canine. The canine’s equipment should be separately bagged, but it can be placed in the handler’s tote

I hope some of the information gleaned from our recent experience and subsequent scramble to adapt helps you on a future call.

Please remember, the outline presented here is just a basic plan. And, to borrow from the military, “No plan survives first contact.” It is our job to make sure first contact doesn’t come on an emergency scene. Get in touch with your local law enforcement agencies, find out what protocols they already have, establish how their protocols work with yours, and train with them. You should know what to expect from their officers on scene, and they should know what to expect from you.

For decades, real canaries prevented countless deaths of grateful miners through detection of lethal atmospheres. Law enforcement officers are your Blue Canaries, and like their namesake from the mines, they’ve saved a lot of lives. Let’s take good care of them.

Ricky Hesson is an engineer with the Asheville Fire Department in North Carolina, which he joined in 2013. He has spent most of his career on Engine 11, the city’s HazMat Response Unit, which also serves as one of North Carolina’s Regional HazMat Response teams. He is a Highway Emergency Response Specialist, a MERRTT Technician, and has attended dozens of other Hazmat courses. Although these certifications do not validate him. He’s still a “New Guy.” If you need anything else, please let me know.

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