Common and Site-Specific Hazardous Materials

Time will be spent in this here pointing out details of the common rather than the "exotic" hazardous materials. Common materials are the ones that have killed and injured responders in the past. In reality, there have been only a few common materials involved in most of these deaths and injuries:

  • • Ammonium nitrate
  • • Anhydrous ammonia
  • • Chlorine
  • • Combustible dusts
  • • Liquefied petroleum gases
  • • Petroleum products such as gasoline and benzene

Common hazardous materials, not the "exotic", are the ones responders are most likely to encounter in transportation and fixed-facility incidents today. Although those materials listed above are the killers in the past, there are many other common hazardous materials we may also have to deal with. Frequent encounters occur between emergency responders and acids, bases, oxidizers, flammable solids, poisonous liquids and solids and water-reactive materials. Even though they may be common materials, it doesn't mean we have extensive experience in handling them. Our skills in recognition and identification along with experience will help us determine what the dangers are.

Hazmatology Point: Once the hazard is determined, a thorough hazard/risk analysis needs to be conducted before operational tasks are identified. Gordon Graham's video about Risk/Frequency Models is part of the Hazardous Materials Incident Management Course I taught at the National Fire Academy before I retired in April 2018. These models apply to all kinds of risk/benefit analysis situations, not just the fire service and not specifically for haztnat. However, I have modified the concept so that it can be useful in determining risk/benefit in hazardous materials incidents. My opinion is that this really is a good way to look at hazard/risk analysis as it applies to hazardous materials incidents.

Recognition-Primed Decision Model

Your brain is much like a computer hard drive, which has the capacity of holding maybe a gazillion bytes of information. When you get involved in any type of incident, your brain scans it and stores the information in your on-board computer. It looks for a match of an incident you have been involved with previously. If the hard drive finds a match, it automatically directs the behavior based on the past behavior that ended with a satisfactory result. Simply, the decision maker has an idea of how things work based on the knowledge that has been gained from experience. The options are compared against what is known to work.

Historical incidents, like those in Volume One can be substituted for incidents you actually experience yourself. Reading and learning about them will put you there, and you can experience what went wrong, if anything; then by looking at lessons learned, you can also learn what is known to produce a satisfactory result.

Hazmatology Point: On March 4, 1996, eighteen years after the Waverly, TN, incident, a similar derailment occurred in Weyuwega, WI, and Assistant Chief Jim Baehnman told me when 1 visited there that he used his knowledge of the Waverly incident to formulate tactics in Weyuwega. This may have had a direct impact on the Weyuwega incident in terms of safety to emergency personnel and residents. There was not a single serious injury or death as a direct result of the derailment in Weyuwega. Baehnman said, "from the start of the incident, the tone of the incident would be driven by safety and not time."

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