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Hazardous Materials Releases

What is a Hazardous Materials Incident?

What is a Hazardous Materials Incident? A simple definition of hazardous materials is, “those materials that pose health hazards or physical hazards.”  Government agencies on the County, State and Federal levels eventually respond to ongoing hazardous materials incidents, but it is the local fire agency which normally serves as the first responder in the critical first minutes or hours of a release.

The fire crews of the Orange City Fire Department respond to hazardous materials releases in the City of Orange whether they be from small containers, train cars, tanker trailers or industrial chemical drums.  Firefighters also respond to investigate unidentified materials in the community that might be hazardous in nature.

As with fires, hazardous materials incidents comprise a very low percentage of emergency incidents in the City of Orange.  However, the initial moments of these incidents are sometimes critical, and can mean the difference between life and death for firefighters and citizens, alike, in some cases.

Some situations are relatively static while others are dynamic and changing constantly.  As with any other emergency the firefighters of the Orange City Fire Department face, hazardous materials releases do not occur only on sunny, seventy-degree days with no wind present.  Firefighters have to stabilize incidents occurring in the rain, at night, during Santa Ana winds, in residential areas, and in congested rush-hour conditions.

Responding to Hazardous Materials Releases

Firefighters in the City of Orange are trained to the first responder level.  Upon arrival at an incident, they make immediate attempts to isolate and identify the material; deny entry to those who would enter the area of the spill; evacuate an appropriate area or “shelter” citizens in place, depending on the type of material involved, time of day, wind speed, and anticipated amount of time it will take to mitigate the hazard in relation to how long people can safely stay inside of nearby buildings; and assess (and continually re-assess) the status of the situation.

The first fire officer arriving on the scene of a release sometimes is responding to a call for assistance, a medical aid, or an investigation.  He or she must take appropriate, immediate actions to address the actual situation, including those mentioned above.  The fire officer normally will establish command of the incident, request appropriate additional resources from dispatch (including specialized hazardous materials teams to enter the immediate area of the spill in specialized protective suits, and police to control traffic and assist with evacuation),  let all of the responding units know what the scene looks like and what the nature of the release is, develop a plan of action and assign resources upon their arrival on the scene.  Each incident is different, though, and requires flexibility to address each situation differently.

One possible scenario for a fire crew arriving on the scene of a hazardous materials release on their own is to 1) have the firefighter get in his or her personal protective gear (including self-contained breathing apparatus) and make an initial attempt to safely dike or otherwise contain the hazardous material, 2) have the engineer locate the fire unit in a safe location and make an attempt to identify the material using binoculars and reference books carried on all of the fire units, and 3) have the captain of the crew issue initial directions to people in the area to move to a different location or “shelter” in place until further orders.  The captain also has to perform all of the other functions of upgrading the incident at the same time, including ordering the additional resources and establishing an incident command structure.  A wide range of conditions present themselves to firefighters, so an equally wide range of actions are taken for each specific event.

Complications and Readiness to Respond

As with any of the other types of emergencies to which the Orange City Fire Department responds, hazardous materials incidents can involve fires, mass-casualties, traffic collisions, technical rescues or terrorist events, among others.  Firefighters train to respond to hazardous materials releases as one of their “low-frequency, high-risk” incident types.  Although the members of the community are typically not thinking of the possibility of a major hazardous materials incident in the city every day, the fire crews at the Orange City Fire Department are.  The Orange City Fire Department is ready to respond to the call that you never imagine you will have to make.

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