By Author(s): Les Baker 
Published Tuesday, February 28, 2012
It’s 3 p.m. on a sunny afternoon, and units have just been dispatched to a reported motor vehicle collision (MVC) involving a cargo tank truck on a busy four-lane highway. While responding, units receive additional reports that a vapor cloud is being emitted from a breech in the vehicle’s container. After recognizing the cloud from a safe distance and stopping the apparatus, your engine company establishes command and begins initial defensive measures until additional resources arrive.
This is the type of incident that most responders picture when they think of a hazmat scene. Although mitigating such an incident may be lengthy and complex, the initial identification that puts hazmat protocols into action is fairly easy. Responders shouldn’t limit their perception of hazmat, especially when dealing with MVCs, and they should always look for clues or indicators that suggest their presence.
With that in mind, let’s do a quick review of some of the factors related to MVCs involving (or potentially involving) hazardous materials.
In order to ship or transport hazardous materials, businesses must follow the Hazardous Materials Regulations, a set of rules that addresses various topics, including classification, proper packaging, applicable markings and labels, emergency response plans, etc. These regulations were enacted to provide adequate protection against risks to life, property and the environment.
If the regulations are adhered to, the likelihood of a hazmat incident occurring is mostly limited to human factors. When companies follow the regulations, it is easier for responders to get the needed information to mitigate the incident.
In other cases, the vehicle may be part of an illegal operation or exempt from certain regulations. For instance, there are agricultural operations exemptions that allow farmers to transport certain hazardous materials between fields and to or from the farm. There are many fertilizers, pesticides, soil amendments and fuels used in farming processes that may be hard to recognize depending on the condition and appearance of some farm transportation vehicles.
Spilled fluids—including fuel, oil, transmission fluid, antifreeze, brake fluid, power steering fluid and windshield washer fluid—are common after an MVC. There are potential flammable and health hazards, even for seemingly harmless fluids. These fluids should be considered hazardous and mitigated appropriately. This generally requires covering the fluids with Oil-Dri, dirt and/or absorbent pads, and staffing a charged hoseline. Responders must be careful not to cause secondary contamination outside the hot zone by simply walking around the vehicles.
A countless number of people unsafely transport hazardous materials in small quantities by vehicle. This could potentially be the worst type of hazmat incident related to MVCs for several reasons: First, unlike hazmat transportation vehicles, there are no regulations related to the quantity, type, container shape, integrity, etc., of the material transported.
In certain instances, these materials may actually lead to driver impairment, which can cause a collision. This has been a more frequent problem in recent years due to the increasing number of mobile meth labs. Additionally, these hazards may not be noticeable until responders complete outer and inner hazard surveys, which means that responders may be exposed to a material prior to its identification.
NFPA 1670: Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents states that agencies shall ensure that there is a procedure to evacuate members from an area and to account for their safety when an imminent hazard condition is discovered. This should be accomplished by any effective means, including audible warning devices, visual signals and radio signals. Many departments fail to include this in MVC standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Another component of NFPA 1670 states that all members of the organization shall meet the requirements specified in Chapter 4 of NFPA 472: Standard for Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents. This chapter identifies the skills and knowledge a first responder should possess at the awareness level. The first responder should be able to analyze the incident to determine both the hazardous materials present and the basic hazard and response information for each hazardous material by completing the following tasks:
- Detect the presence of hazardous materials.
- Survey a hazmat incident from a safe location to identify the name, identification numbers or placard types.
- Collect hazard information from the Emergency Response Guidebook.
Implement protective actions and the notification of additional resources consistent with the local emergency response plan, SOPs and the Emergency Response Guidebook.
In addition to formal hazmat training, responders should also sharpen their scene assessment skills. Evaluate the incident during the approach to the scene, and be very cautious while completing the hazard survey. If there is any suspicion that a container is filled with a hazardous material, report it to the group supervisor or incident commander and take the appropriate actions. Containers as innocent looking as milk jugs may contain gasoline or other substances.
Because the most common type of transportation hazmat incident stems from highway crashes, responders should always look for the presence of hazardous materials at any MVC. These incidents may present themselves in one of several ways, and responders should be trained on the steps to effectively mitigate the hazards.
Comment Now: Post Your Thoughts & Comments on This Story