By Darius Kirkwood
Picture this: You finally have your copy of the new Emergency Response Guidebook and downloaded the app. One day you get a call about a truck carrying hazmat that overturned a few minutes prior, puncturing its tank and releasing its contents. What do you need to know?
1. What do you see? Once you arrive at the scene of the accident, the temptation to rush into the belly of the beast will be strong – but don’t do it! Your priority as the first to respond is to try to minimize harm to people, property, the environment, and last but not least, yourself. Remember, you are essentially prepping the scene for the chemical response team. Stay upstream of vapors, fumes, smoke or spills – if you’re facing the scene of the accident, the wind should be at your back.
Are there any other factors that might complicate the situation? Strong winds and inclement weather have the potential to compound the effects of some hazardous substances exponentially. Be sure to keep your distance when possible, but stay close enough to observe. You’ll need to report these details later.
Don’t forget – the ERG is meant to be used during the first 30 minutes after the incident has occurred. Once that mark has passed, actual conditions may vary greatly from what is projected in the guidebook.
2. What spilled? The Hazardous Materials Table lists the proper shipping name for most dangerous goods, along with a corresponding UN (United Nations) or NA (National) I.D. number. To start using the ERG, you’ll need one or the other to quickly learn more about how to address the hazardous material you are facing.
Anyone transporting hazmat is required to possess shipping papers, a document containing information about the hazmat being transported including its I.D. number, proper shipping name, hazard class or division, and packing group. Shipping papers also provide an emergency contact number that must be monitored as long as the hazmat is in transportation.
Another easy way to determine what kind of hazmat you are dealing with is by looking for the I.D. number on the diamond-shaped placardlocated on each side and end of the affected vehicle or trailer. If a placard is visible but there is no I.D. number, you may be able to find a match in the placard table, located in the ERG’s white pages. You may also be able to find guidance based on the hazard class on the placard, but these methods should only be used as a last resort.
Finally, the hazmat package itself should bear a label or marking with information about the material inside, but remember not to get too close.
3. What can you do? Now that you know the name or I.D. number, you’ll need to locate the orange guide page for the hazard you are facing.
The yellow-bordered sections of the ERG provide an index of guide pages listed by I.D. number, while the blue pages list hazmat items alphabetically by the proper shipping name. For example, if you know that the overturned truck you’re responding to contains chlorine, the blue pages send you to guide 124. The I.D. number, in this case 1017, is also provided just in case.
The orange pages are what the ERG is all about. Each guide page describes the potential hazards the hazmat presents, public safety tips, and material-specific guidance for emergency responders dealing with the incident. Here you will learn if the hazmat presents any health risks, precautions you must take to safely isolate the area, and measures you should take to protect yourself.
4. Are there any special precautions you should be aware of? Entries in the yellow or blue bordered pages that are highlighted green indicate materials that present a toxic inhalation hazard. If this material is not on fire, turn to the green-bordered pages for more information on the actions you should take. The green pages include guidance on initial isolation and protective action distances for small and large spills, as well as a table of water-reactive materials that may produce toxic gases.
Items with the letter “P” following the guide page number may undergo violent polymerization if subjected to high heat or contamination, which could lead to an explosive container failure.
5. If you still can’t identify the material? As was mentioned above, there are a few ways to get response guidance if you are unable to properly identify the specific material that has been released.
You can match an image from the ERG’s placard table to the placards on the vehicle. Also, the road trailer and rail car identification guides help you match certain cargo trailers and rail cars to guide pages for materials often transported in similarly-shaped containers. Like the placard guide, this is a last resort and should only be used if there is no other means to identify the material.
Want to Learn More? PHMSA’s Hazardous Materials Safety Assistance Team offers free ERG training presentationsacross the country so that firefighters are prepared to deal with hazmat incidents whenever and wherever they occur, and will schedule a session for your department upon request.
Given the perfect conditions – clear skies, specific knowledge of the material in question, and an isolated location – using the Emergency Response Guidebook can be relatively straightforward. In reality, however, emergency situations like these seldom present emergency responders with such ideal circumstances.
It is imperative that you are familiar with the ERG before you have to respond to a hazmat accident. The ERG is an extremely valuable tool that provides safe, appropriate initial actions to take in the event of a hazmat accident – if you know how to use it.