Tech Rescue

Cross-Disciplinary and Interagency Use of Hazmat Equipment

Issue 9 and Volume 8.

Emergency response to hazardous materials releases is an equipment-intensive job. It’s ironic that at a time when grant funding is starting to dry up, there has never been a greater amount of high-quality hazmat response equipment on the market. Although this may seem to be a drawback, it could actually be a grand opportunity. With grant funds more difficult to come by and the implementation of more stringent selection criteria, it’s essential to convince those holding the purse strings that you’re making optimal use of their funds. One way to do this: Make wide use of the equipment within your agency, and use the equipment as a bridge for interagency cooperation.

Cross-Functional Equipment
Equipment that was previously used exclusively for hazmat response is increasingly being used in multiple applications within the fire department—and even across diverse emergency response agencies. For example, multi-gas monitors—which contain an oxygen sensor, a combustible gas indicator (CGI) and one or more electrochemical toxic gas sensors—are now being used for routine fireground monitoring of hazardous combustion gases. Even advanced detection equipment, such as gas chromatography-mass spectrometers (GC-MS), are finding wide use in emergency response, from hazmat response to arson and fire investigation to illicit drug lab investigation.

The cross-disciplinary use of equipment can make a stronger case for grant funding because you can demonstrate that the equipment is needed for several purposes and that it won’t simply sit on a shelf for those once-in-a-career calls. For example, the Fire Smoke Coalition strongly advocates routine monitoring for carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN) at all structure fires. As a result, more and more engine companies are now carrying multi-gas meters—not just for use at CO alarms and gas investigations, but for atmospheric monitoring during overhaul and fire investigation at structure fires. Over the past several years, what was once solely a hazmat technician function performed by the hazardous materials response team (HMRT), has become a function performed routinely by hazmat operations personnel assigned to engine and truck companies.
It’s heartening to see the mission-specific competencies addressed in NFPA 472: Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents (2013 edition) being applied on the fireground. Although training operations-level personnel is initially time-intensive and costly, the health and safety benefits to departments and the heightened readiness for hazmat responses and terrorist incidents will benefit communities and the nation in the long run.

Detection & Identification
Advanced detection and identification instrumentation are rapidly following suit. The applications of GC-MS are being discovered not only by hazmat teams, but also by fire departments, law enforcement agencies and EMS. New equipment, such as the GUARDION GC-MS manufactured by Smiths Detection has become so reliable and easy to use that new applications are being found seemingly on a daily basis.

GC-MS uses two technologies to not only identify chemicals but also to separate complex mixtures. The technology is able to analyze samples originating from the atmosphere, the headspace of containers and even contaminants in water, such as fireground run-off, decontamination waste water and chemical run-off to waterways. GC-MS is capable of separating hundreds of compounds and individually identifying them in less than five minutes. This is a capability that emergency responders have never had in the field before and promises to revolutionize not only hazmat response, but also arson investigations, victim toxicant identification and illicit laboratory investigations.

Although GC-MS has had a reputation in the past as a difficult-to-use, high-maintenance and expensive-to-operate technology, revolutionary advances have muted these criticisms. The new equipment can be stored while powered down for extended periods, the software is easy to operate, and sampling and analysis are simple to do.

Decon & Beyond
Decontamination equipment can also be used to build relationships and interagency cooperation. Technical rescue teams, water rescue teams and meth lab investigation teams all have periodic need of decontamination activities. What better way for hazmat teams to accomplish training and relationship-building all at once? The partnering agencies then become active voices of support when funding becomes available and budgets are drawn up.

Tents used largely for decontamination, such as the inflatable Zumro tents and self-supporting Reeves tents that are climate-controlled, can also be used to support a variety of partner agencies, such as public vaccination clinics of the local public health department, firefighter rehabilitation on the fireground during inclement weather, and EMS triage and treatment during mass-casualty operations.

Leverage Limited Funding
The limitations in grant funding combined with revolutionary new hazmat equipment on the market will hopefully lead to a brave new world of interagency cooperation and optimal use of public monies. Now is the time to build interagency ties and maximize the use of agency resources. In the future, the departments actively demonstrating the most interagency cooperation will reap the lion’s share of grant funding. Agencies that can demonstrate fiscal responsibility by actively using grant funds in a smart way on a daily basis—and not just have the equipment on a shelf waiting for the “big one”—will benefit in a tight fiscal environment.