CHEMTREC, A Key Hazmat Tool, Expands Its Capabilities

Anthony Campos, a CHEMTREC emergency service specialist, at work
Anthony Campos, a CHEMTREC emergency service specialist, at work.

From the outside, CHEMTREC remains stone simple: Emergency responders just dial 800-424-9300 for 24/7 expert assistance identifying hazardous materials and mitigating hazmat incidents.

But on the inside, CHEMTREC, the Chemical Transportation Emergency Center, has steadily grown in capabilities and sophistication – exploring new technologies, reaching out to other countries, building stronger bridges to chemical manufacturers and shippers, and even helping the U.S. military.

CHEMTREC was established in 1971 by the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now the American Chemistry Council) to provide assistance with hazmat response.

What has helped keep the center financially stable for about half of its nearly four decades in operation is a 1990 U.S. Department of Transportation mandate that all shippers of hazardous materials provide an emergency phone number for use in case of an incident involving their products. Many companies found that it was cost-effective to contract with CHEMTREC to provide this service (about 24,000 shippers are currently registered with CHEMTREC). Over the years responders benefited from having so much hazmat expertise built up in one place.

That expertise includes almost 5 million material safety data sheets and what CHEMTREC says is the world’s largest on-call network of chemical, medical, toxicological and hazmat experts. In addition, CHEMTREC can reach back directly to a product’s manufacturer; in a few cases, responders have gotten information from the chemist in charge of producing the material that was involved in an incident.

On average, the center receives about 350 calls a day in reference to about 125 incidents, said Randy Speight, CHEMTREC’s managing director.

A normal 12-hour watch in the CHEMTREC operations center is staffed with three emergency service specialists (ESSs) and one watch supervisor. Each watch rotates one shift on and three off, and two ESSs and two ops center managers are available as floaters or to supplement a watch during high-volume periods, typically during the day.

Experience And Training

CHEMTREC is putting increased emphasis on training for their ESSs, Speight said. Baseline training involves three to six months before an ESS goes on duty and starts answering the phone. ESSs ideally have hazmat experience and their ranks include retired and current firefighters and personnel with military explosive ordnance disposal experience.

Both experience and training are important in the ESS role, which connects everyone who has a stake in a hazmat incident: responders, manufacturers, shippers, carriers, consignees, government agencies and emergency response contractors.

“One of our jobs,” Speight said, “is to take all the bits and pieces we get from the responders and work out all the details.”

One of CHEMTREC’s most pressing current issues, Speight said, centers on imports of hazardous chemicals into the United States, which have increased steadily since 1989.

Educating Shippers

CHEMTREC has noticed difficulties getting information about some international shipments, often because U.S. requirements for packaging and labeling the chemicals aren’t being followed. Speight said it isn’t always clear whether a foreign shipper is ignoring the regulations or is just unfamiliar with them, but either way it’s a potentially dangerous situation for responders and the public.

That’s why CHEMTREC recently began setting up a campaign to educate foreign hazmat shippers about U.S. documentation requirements and the mandate to provide an emergency access number. The program started in the Far East and will ramp up in 2010, Speight said. Fortunately, a growing number of foreign shippers have registered with CHEMTREC, he said.

CHEMTREC has also worked with federal transportation officials to open up venues for educating overseas shippers, so far making presentations in Malaysia, Argentina, South Korea and Hungary. The center also organized an international emergency response summit in Miami in 2006.

Speight said that CHEMTREC has offered to help set up CHEMTREC-like organizations in other countries, but many of those countries, particularly on the Pacific Rim, are so focused on natural disasters that they don’t have the resources to do so.

The other side of the global trade coin is chemical exports. U.S. shippers sometimes want CHEMTREC to provide a similar service overseas, Speight said. CHEMTREC recently signed memoranda of agreement with organizations in Chile, Colombia and Argentina for mutual assistance, he said, and is looking for similar partnerships around the world. The center also has a similar agreement with the Swedish Rescue Services Agency.

On a different front, CHEMTREC is working with various partners to overcome the limitations of what is still primarily a paper-based system of documenting hazmat shipments.

“Shipping documents are becoming more complicated,” Speight said, and what makes that more of a problem is that neither the format of the individual documents (such as bills of lading) nor the overall package of documents is standardized.

Electronic Documentation

Other problems, too, crop up, such as documents showing the name of a third-party logistics company rather than the name of the actual shipper or manufacturer. In other cases, the shipper provides only the required “proper shipping name” in the documentation, instead of the specific product name. Though a designation such as “resin solution” may be enough to mitigate the hazard, Speight said more information is always useful.

Although he cautions that electronic documentation could be subject to some of the same limitations as paper documentation, formats such as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) do offer potential for streamlining shipping documents and helping responders.

In mid-October DOT officials convened a two-day meeting with CHEMTREC and numerous other stakeholders about an electronic shipping documentation initiative. The project, known as Hazardous Materials Automated Cargo Communication for Efficient and Safe Shipping (HM-ACCESS), will explore whether EDI and similar technologies could usefully supplement the current paper-based system. A demonstration project is planned. For information, go to

A Phenomenal System

Electronic access to data is moving forward elsewhere, too. Speight noted that railroad access to individual rail car numbers has been around a long time, but that faxing a thick train

consist – a list of cars and their contents – to responders on scene isn’t all that practical.

About five years ago, CSX Transportation, a Class I railroad, a category that comprises the biggest ones, offered to automate that data exchange and set up a Web-based system that can start with a car number, or a train number or location, and within 20 to 30 minutes provide a schematic of the train.

“It’s a phenomenal system,” Speight enthused. “The beauty of this is that it shows me the whole train.”

The partners are now in the process of upgrading the system to include data from Google Earth, which might help identify nearby hazards and occupancies.

About two years ago, DOT funded a similar system for short-line railroads. And Hapag-Lloyd, a major German shipping line, has a comparable system that lets CHEMTREC pull up intermodal cargo container contents based on the container number.

Another project is under way between CHEMTREC and industrial giant Dow Chemical Co. Under an initiative established in 2007, Dow will work with CHEMTREC to enhance rail car tracking and the sharing of information about rail shipments, focusing on chemicals that are toxic inhalation hazards (TIH), such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia.

The tank cars in Dow’s TIH fleet are gradually being fitted with GPS receivers and with sensors that will indicate when a car’s dome is open or closed. Dow has geomapped its own loading facilities and its customers’ locations, so false alarms – when a dome is open legitimately – can be avoided.

Near-Instant Information

Issues such as battery life and the sensor performance when subjected to the vibration and jolting of a freight train will be monitored. Eventually other sensors will be added, including accelerometers, sniffers and temperature and pressure sensors, which could potentially provide near-instant information about a derailment or leak.

CHEMTREC is also taking care of its own house. The center will be moving its offices and operations center within the District of Columbia next summer, Speight said, and will be enhancing its own continuity of operations and disaster recovery capabilities as part of the move.

A Call From Afghanistan

Finally, in an example of CHEMTREC’s increasingly global reach, the center recently provided assistance to a unit of the 10th Mountain Division serving in Afghanistan that was facing a hazmat situation. Speight said he wasn’t at liberty to give details, other than to say the commander on scene wasn’t satisfied with the information he was getting through normal channels, so he called CHEMTREC.

As it happened, the ESS who answered the phone was ex-Navy, and the chemist who was on call had a contact at the Air Force. Using these various connections, the impromptu team quickly put together a containment/mitigation plan that resolved the Army’s problem half a world away.

“It’s not unusual that we get these calls,” said Speight.

It was just another example of a very simple way he described CHEMTREC’s mission: “We don’t want any responder to be without assistance.”

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