The shadow of 9/11 still hangs over the fire service, and many of the reverberations from the attacks still echo for hazmat teams across the country.
Regardless of whether local or regional hazmat units had previously received WMD equipment and training, 9/11 put WMD incidents front and center. Although state, and especially federal, money flowed in over the next several years, in many cases that created its own set of problems, as hazmat teams struggled to keep up with training and maintenance on technologically-complex detection equipment.
Fortunately, day-to-day hazmat incidents such as spills and leaks have largely remained a known quantity. While the overall level of hazmat response activity has remained consistent, the number of significant incidents is going down, according to Tim Butters, assistant chief/operations of the Fairfax City (Va.) Fire Department and chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Hazardous Materials Committee.
The reason, he said, is that “industry has cleaned up its act,” with improved processes, containers and risk management. While things aren’t perfect, they are much better, he said, and incidents now tend to involve smaller manufacturers and carriers.
The most common hazmat incidents are still spills and leaks of flammable liquids, according to Butters. Nonetheless, he said, the post-9/11 shift to include WMD “has really changed the nature of hazmat response.”
The bioterrorism threat, embodied in white-powder scares – Is it anthrax? Is it coffee creamer? – really helped push the hazmat field forward, according to Chief B.J. Jetter of the Sycamore Township (Ohio) EMS and Fire Department. He is also vice president of the Greater Cincinnati Hazardous Materials Team and a duty officer.
Just money isn’t enough
“Technology has ramped up dramatically” in the hazmat world, particularly in terms of detection gear, according to Butters. The newer gear is very sophisticated, but it’s also expensive, which doesn’t make buying it an easy task, even when grant money is in hand.
Fortunately for hazmat teams looking to buy gear wisely, there are some solid sources of up-to-date information.
For example, the InterAgency Board on Equipment Standardization and Interoperability continues to issue its Standardized Equipment List, now in its 10th year.
Another resource is the Standardized Hazardous Materials Equipment List, 2009 edition from FIRESCOPE, California’s statewide mutual aid program.
Jan Dunbar, former division chief for special operations with the Sacramento City (Calif.) Fire Department and currently a division chief for special operations/hazmat with the California Emergency Management Agency, said the list covers 13 categories of hazmat equipment.
Two of the list’s appendices set out the FIRESCOPE criteria for hazmat teams, which are divided into Type I, Type II and Type III. That part of the list, Dunbar said, “is starting to become very, very popular,” with other states asking to use it. The appendices help tighten up the definitions of what a given hazmat team is capable of, and a requirement, he emphasized, is “You have to have the gear.”
Another aspect of the list is that California mandates National Fire Protection Association-compliant chemical personal protective equipment, UL or FM Global-approved radios and Environmental Protection Agency-approved absorbent powders.
Dunbar noted that some firefighters “get it” about standards for firefighting gear, but do not seem to when it comes to hazmat. “You just don’t buy what you find on the shelf at Wal-Mart,” he said. “Why do you think we have standards?”
Glen Rudner, a former hazmat officer with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management who works for CRA Inc. of Alexandria, Va., a private homeland security consulting firm, advised, “Buy what you need, not what you want. Buy what meets your capabilities.”
By capabilities, he said he means that personnel must have the right training to use any new gear. He stressed that the attitude of “he who has the most toys wins” does not apply to hazmat equipment.
Another aspect of being smart about what you buy, Rudner said, is knowing the ongoing costs of keeping gear operational.
Unfortunately some fire departments buy hazmat gear with little or no thought about how they will pay for consumables, calibration and other expenses after current grant money runs out.
Rudner cites the example of a four-gas meter, which will usually need new sensors every one or two years. He estimated that four sensors and a photo-ionization lamp for one detector would run about $1,000.
Replacing just one set of colorimetric tubes, assuming 20 to 25 boxes of tubes at roughly $75 a box every two years or so, would be even costlier, he said. Even Draeger Safety’s new all-digital version still needs batteries and has to have its chips replaced every two years, Rudner noted.
“You have to continually put money in reserve,” he advised.
Staying Up To Date
The counterpart to keeping equipment up-to-date is keeping personnel up-to-date. Butters noted that the money that was pushed out to fire departments after 9/11 focused on technology and gear, not on training.
Although sustaining equipment in areas like maintenance and calibration is important, he emphasized that hazmat teams need continual training. One issue is that there’s really no hazmat equivalent of live-fire training, and he said there’s also some concern that department-level training too often is based on a 1970s to 1980s knowledge base.
More-sophisticated technology puts greater demands on personnel and their knowledge of how to use it, Butters said, and more importantly, what to do with what it’s telling them.
A positive note, he said, is that “the information we have available now is much more robust.” In addition to the federal DOT Emergency Response Guide, there are resources like CHEMTREC (See article in January issue).
If there’s an iconic symbol of hazmat response, it’s protective equipment, and hazmat experts are quite upbeat about current protective gear, as well as the next generation under development.
Over the past five or six years, Dunbar said, the greatest advances in hazmat equipment have been in Level A suits. He calls the current suits “outrageously wondrous,” especially in comparison to those of the 1980s, which leaked even though they were “mil-spec.” He said military standards at that time dated to World War II.
As a result of the NFPA and the fire service setting standards for hazmat gear and pushing for better protective clothing, he said, major progress was achieved by the late 1990s. Now, with suits that can be exposed to any of 21 chemicals with no breakthrough after eight hours, Dunbar said, “What we’ve done in 20 years is amazing.”
Capt. Douglas Wolfe of the Sarasota County (Fla.) Fire Department said he likes W.L. Gore’s Chempak Ultra Barrier fabric for Class 2 (breathable) garments, which allows body heat to dissipate and thus lowers the level of stress on a hazmat responder.
Wolfe, who is also the state/local chair of the Equipment SubGroup of the InterAgency Board on Equipment Standardization and Interoperability, said another example of progress is Project HEROES, a joint effort of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other partners.
Among other things, Project HEROES is working on a new generation of structural firefighting garments that will provide splash and some vapor protection in a turnout ensemble.
Barrier garments will always be needed, Wolfe said, but there’s also a need for a breathable protective ensemble to provide increased mission duration. “I personally think those are the garments of the future for us,” he said.
The “Level A all the way” mentality has to be replaced by a “risk-based response” approach, he said, that relies on better on-scene chemical detection.
Fortunately, Dunbar noted, electronic detection of vapors and gases has been a story of advancing technology and competition among vendors, both factors benefitting responders.
Vendors like RAE Systems and Smiths Detection have “really pushed the limit” as to capability and reliability, he said. As mass spectroscopy has become more widely used in field instruments, they’ve gotten simpler, easier to use, more accurate and significantly less expensive.
Rudner sums it up this way: “There’s some really cool stuff out there.”
Gas And Vapor Detection
For gas and vapor detection, he likes the First Defender from Ahura Scientific Inc., which uses high-resolution Raman spectroscopy, and Smiths Detection’s HazMatID portable chemical identifier, which uses
Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy.
Rudner also thinks highly of the ChemPro 100 handheld detector for chemical warfare agents and selected toxic industrial chemicals (TICs). Using open-loop ion-mobility spectrometry, the device is made by Environics Inc., which also makes the very similar ChemRAE for RAE Systems, which can be networked into an AreaRAE wireless network.
Finally, Rudner likes the AP4C and AP2C portable detectors from Proengin, a French company with an office in Plantation, Fla. The AP2C can detect G- and V-type nerve agents and also mustard gas; the four-channel AP4C detects nerve agents as well as other chemical agents (and their precursors) and TICs such as ammonia.
Identifying potential biological warfare threats in the field is a trickier situation, according to hazmat experts, one where current detectors, though evolving rapidly, aren’t yet as capable as instruments for chemical hazards.
Richard Brenner, hazmat coordinator for the Clark County Fire Department, Las Vegas, and a member of the Las Vegas fusion center, called bioterrorism “the bomb threat of the 21st century.” He said he is concerned that “the technology is not there” to truly meet that threat and noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not approve or recommend any current field bioagent tests.
Rudner likes the Prime Alert by Smiths Detection and similar protein-based tests. The Prime Alert includes a palm-sized, fluorometer-based reader and five sampling assay kits. He also speaks highly of the RAMP biodetection system from Response Biomedical, a fluorescence immunoassay, and the Smiths Detection io-Seeq, which uses polymerase chain reaction.
If presumptive testing in the field with such instruments gives repeated negatives, Rudner said, those results can be considered pretty reliable.
In early March, Smiths announced the release of Bio-ACT, a kit of four complementary technologies, including Prime Alert and Bio-Seeq, as well as a protein/pH test and a chemical identifier, for use at unknown-powder calls.
The final invisible hazard in the WMD world is radiation and, here too, a growing market and plenty of competing vendors have made for better products.
Rudner singled out the new, more compact Interceptor personal radiation detector, made by ICx Radiation Inc. of Oak Ridge, Tenn., for Thermo Scientific. Instruments like this, he said, have made stick-style self-reading dosimeters obsolete.
He also likes Thermo Scientific’s identiFINDER product line, which combines gamma spectrometry and nuclide identification capability, and similar equipment from other manufacturers.
The combination of better hazmat equipment and better training has meant improvements in both response capability and responder safety.
To cite just one aspect of hazmat response, Jetter noted that fire departments are becoming technically proficient with field metering. “We’re doing more field research before we’re jumping in,” he said, and pointed out that with current gear, it’s much easier to be definitive about what you’re dealing with.
“Hazmat has evolved into its own science,” Jetter said. “We’ve come a long way.”