(Appeared in print as "Partners in protection")
The plating shop where chemicals were used to turn unfinished metals into a smooth and finished product was engulfed by flames as a Boulder County, Colo., fire truck arrived on-scene. Responders immediately took a defensive position. They extinguished the fire from outside positions to keep it contained and protect firefighters from billowing smoke potentially loaded with unknown chemicals.
The hazmat team arrived and determined the presence of hydrochloric acid, a highly corrosive solution that could cause dermal burns and damage firefighter gear. A standard decontamination zone was set up after a test-strip swipe of bunker gear revealed an acidic PH factor of 3, indicating that, despite their best efforts to stay back from the fire and its corrosive smoke, responders had been exposed.
“Decon can set the tone for the rest of the scene,” said t Lt. Mike Becker, an 18-year fire service veteran who coordinates hazmat response for the Longmont (Colo.) Fire Department. “If you don’t have things properly in place, you can drag contaminates all over God’s green earth. It’s critical to recognize upfront all the key issues and indicators; it’s important to have decon in place early on.”
At the plating shop scene, three decontamination pools were set up. The firefighters, who had no idea they were exposed before the hazmat team arrived, were washed thoroughly in the first pool (gross decon), then received a technical wash in the second pool and a final rinse or definitive rinse in the third pool. Using a PH test strip on each pool, the hazmat team monitored the contamination levels as they decreased at each pool level, showing the decontamination effort was effective. This is something Becker refers to as “definitive decon.”
Still, the incident resulted in having to decontaminate 15 firefighters and discard an estimated $50,000 in turnout and other gear destroyed by the corrosive atmosphere at the plating fire
“Recognition is huge,” Becker said.
Today, decon is getting more attention as commanders consider the hazmat implications of routine structure fires. Many teams are making sure that soot-covered turnouts are getting hosed down at the scene instead of being worn as smudged badges of honor as they go from one incident to another. As studies and evidence mount, there is a growing perception in the fire service that residential fires are flaming, smoky hazmat incidents, and that hazmat safety protocols should to be applied to structure fires when smoke is present. This includes:
- Performing more on-scene decontamination to ensure contaminates do not get transferred from one location to another;
- Firefighter ensemble clothing and equipment are maintained regularly; and
- Hazmat detection tools are deployed to help keep first responders and their custom gear contaminate-free.
Becker is a proponent of having hazmat units team with structure firefighters on a majority of calls, acknowledging the importance of recognizing and detecting the presence of hazardous and toxic materials at any incident, including structure fires. He reasons that in many larger departments, hazmat resources can be under used, even though firefighters today battle residential fires that have more in common with hazmat events than old-fashioned house fires.