(Article appeared in print as "Green guards")
The Vulnerability Impact Protocol for Environmental Resources, or VIPER, is an incident response tool designed to address the growing concerns over the need to incorporate sustainable best-management practices into front-line firefighting protocol. VIPER is an innovative geospatial data-management tool that integrates predefined aquifer vulnerability and risk data with incident location. This will reduce unintentional damage to water supplies by allowing incident commanders to include environmental mitigation measures at the time of response.
In addition to improving environmental and safety outcomes for firefighters, VIPER also improves the efficiency for fire asset management and incident reporting. VIPER was developed as a national product through the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Environmental Sustainability Committee (see video below) and has been identified as the first effort of this type nationwide. The project is slated for beta-testing this year.
Identifying high-risk areas
Despite many improvements in procedures and tactics, modern firefighting still relies on large volumes of water to suppress fires. The drinking water most often used to fight fires is contaminated through contact with fuels and other chemicals present at the scene. Recent testing of the runoff from fire scenes shows the presence of a variety of contaminants, including cyanide, arsenic, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), metals and elevated pH. The runoff from firefighting represents a direct threat to both surface water and groundwater supplies. Containment or mitigation of runoff from fire-suppression efforts historically has not been a priority for most fire departments.
Yarmouth, Mass., became the test case for VIPER. Yarmouth sits atop the Cape Cod Aquifer, and is one of the most productive groundwater systems in Massachusetts. It is recognized nationally as a Sole Source Aquifer, providing drinking water to more than 500,000 people from more than 145 sand and gravel wells. The aquifer is highly vulnerable to contamination from spills, with relatively shallow depths to groundwater, highly permeable sandy soils and low levels of organic material that allow relatively fast movement of groundwater and limited breakdown of contaminants. As the population increases, accidental releases of toxic materials from residential, commercial and traffic related accidents also increases. Protecting groundwater has long been a top priority for this region.
VIPER has been recognized as a valuable addition to Yarmouth’s aquifer protection strategy as it extends protection to all areas of the aquifer, recognizing the importance of watershed-wide protection, and not limiting it only to drinking water source areas. A project team from Barnstable County regional government agencies assisted with the development of the initial VIPER concept, a multi-level data information system incorporating aquifer mapping, regional and site specific data and a tiered response protocol.
Building the VIPER system
VIPER is scalable and can be adapted to any locale where impacts to water resources are a concern.
1] Map aquifer risk: DRASTIC. The aquifer risk map is a crucial component that lets incident commanders develop tiered emergency response protocol in advance based upon level of risk. The risk map incorporates site-specific information, such as the EPA’s Tier I or Tier II hazardous chemical data, local hazmat inspection reports and building layout information.
The aquifer risk map is developed based on a proven, systematic strategy for defining aquifer risk. DRASTIC was developed by the EPA in the early 1980s as a method to identify areas where the groundwater is more or less susceptible to impact from pollution. DRASTIC has been used consistently to guide land-use development policies, resource protection and monitoring prioritization strategies. The model is accepted widely and can be applied easily to aquifers nationwide.
The DRASTIC model is suitable to a variety of geographic areas of 100acres or more, including watersheds, towns, districts, or entire states. It can be modified to include water quality parameters or environmental features of interest, such as wellhead protection zones and surface water features, or be adapted to fit specific vulnerability assessment needs. DRASTIC includes detailed tables and maps that standardize parameter ratings for conditions found in 15 groundwater regions across the U.S.
The system categorizes relative risk to the aquifer from a contaminant transport perspective. A geographic grid is overlaid upon the selected area and each cell is assigned a numerical value, which represents the surface based contamination vulnerability of the aquifer at that location. It is important to note that the method does not replace on-site hydro-geologic evaluation, but rather allows a comparative evaluation of areas with respect to pollution potential. The resulting model is highly compatible to use with Geographic Information Systems (GIS); however, paper maps or other information systems also can be used.
2] Understand that aquifer risk is local. A vulnerability risk tool based on regional information is good, but providing site specific information, ideally at the parcel level, will result in a much more effective response tool, one that accomplishes more than improved environmental protection. As a start, the tool would improve firefighter safety by allowing responders to know in advance specifically what hazards might be encountered. Secondly, cost savings would result through more efficient asset response by getting the right vehicles and equipment to the location in the least amount of time. In addition, incident reporting and communications would be more efficient if all parties have access to the same information, ideally in real time.
Features that may be added to the basic vulnerability mapping would depend on currently available information and community resources to gather new information. Data might include local hydrologic features; zoning; stormwater catch basin and outfall locations; parcel-specific information, such as floor plans and building-structure information); hazmat records
(Tier II level or smaller quantities); and other sources of potential contamination. This information ideally is incorporated as data layers and geo-referenced links using a GIS or other computer-aided dispatch system.
3] Establish a tiered response protocol. Finally, with the risk assessment information in hand, development of a tiered response protocol is needed to establish operating guidelines tailored to the specific community. The basic protocol is linked to each of the risk ratings, which will increase in complexity as the risk rating rises. The protocol also can address special concerns, such as proximity to key resources, direction of flow, or land-use “hot spots.” A tiered approach will let local fire service officials focus the department assets where they are most critically needed, saving both time and money, as well as improving safety and environmental outcomes.