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HazMat Intel Gathering

Written by Darin Dowe

The presence of a HazMat (hazardous material) in tactical law enforcement is not limited to a WMD attack or a clandestine meth lab. The threat could be common household materials such as propane for a barbeque grill, gasoline for a generator or lawn mower or a HazMat being transported in a commercial vehicle. These materials can be as dangerous as the lead coming out the end of a rifle barrel. Intelligence must be gathered, prioritized and assessed when it comes to possible HazMat before an approach to a vehicle or entry into a structure is made.

When a SWAT response is initiated, we obtain basic information from the detectives for the search or arrest warrant, or on-scene law enforcement for a SWAT callout. We build a profile of the suspect and ask questions about his criminal history, past incidents, firearms, as well as the structure and its layout. But do we ask the right questions about HazMat?

Both the operators and command staff should be evaluating this threat before and during the operation. If a HazMat is present, it may be a threat to us even if it is not the intended weapon of the suspect. Ask specific questions about the HazMat. Understand why they pose a threat to the team.

NFPA 704 Diamond

Most cities, counties and states mandate that commercial structures and tanks containing a HazMat have a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704 Diamond placard affixed to them. The placard is used by first responders to rapidly assess HazMat’s at quick glance. The placards display a threat scale from 0-4 (4 being the highest hazard) in each quadrant of the diamond.

Each quadrant is color coded. Blue is for health, which means exposure to substance could cause immediate death to minor injury. Red stands for flammability or fire potential. Yellow signifies instability or reactivity, which means it is readily capable of explosion or unstable at elevated temperatures. White is special—it indicates biological, radiological, oxidizer or water reactive.

Operators need to recognize these symbols and relay their observations to SWAT command staff for evaluation, such as by saying flammability (red) is 4 and special (white) is 3. Such placards would likely be encountered when responding to an active shooter at a factory or barricade suspect in a commercial environment.

Vehicle-borne HazMat Threats

Not all critical incidents involving an armed, barricaded or non-compliant suspect occur in a structure. The suspect may be driving or may have taken control of a commercial or private vehicle. The suspect and potential HazMat threat(s) must be assessed from a safe distance, ideally by a sniper or observer team using optics. If a HazMat is being transported in a commercial vehicle, a square DOT diamond placard will be affixed and visible on the outside.

Commercial vehicle placards are easy to identify and need to be described to command. Command can then identify the class or specific contents of the vehicle by using the DOT-Emergency Response Guide (ERG) and by consulting the HazMat officer who is on scene. At quick glance, if the vehicle is properly placarded, some if not all classes of the HazMat inside can be identified. If you can recognize and read vehicle placards, you can easily identify the hazard using the ERG.

The placard utilizes numbers and symbols (flame, radioactive trefoil, skull and cross bones, etc.), and colors to identify whether the HazMat is flammable, combustible, explosive, radioactive, toxic or corrosive. Some HazMat are more specifically identified by a four digit hazardous material identification number. Once the class or specific contents are identified, the ERG will provide pertinent information regarding the hazard, protective equipment and evacuation distances.

The warning signs that a HazMat may be present in a personal vehicle would include, but are not limited to, the presence of chemical containers and buckets in the passenger compartment, a chemical cloud, taped and/or windows covered with plastic bags, etc. A method of suicide in Japan involves the mixing of chemicals to produce hydrogen sulfide gas. The occupant mixes the chemical while inside of the vehicle and succumbs to its effects.

There are dozens of documented cases in the United States where subjects have successfully used this method to commit suicide. This poses a significant threat to first responders and to SWAT. If SWAT were called to the scene of a suicidal subject and approached the vehicle to secure them and he or she mixed the chemical, they would be exposed if they opened the vehicle’s doors or were in close proximity to venting gas.

Once a preliminary determination has been made that a HazMat is or is suspected of being present, the fire department HazMat team needs to respond to the scene. If SWAT command has specific pre-operational intelligence, the HazMat team should be present for the tactical briefing. If information is developed from witnesses on the scene, a vehicle manifest, material data safety sheet (MSDS) or by the team as the incident evolves, available resources must be referred to immediately.

The ERG and MSDS are tools readily available online. An initial assessment must be conducted pending the arrival of the HazMat team. The information obtained from the HazMat officer, the ERG and the MSDS will guide your response and potential issuance of personal protective equipment (PPE). The ERG should be in every SWAT vehicle.

The presence of containers and tanks, leaking chemicals or gases, powders, corrosive material and HazMat signage in a hospital or industrial plant are all likely indicators of a HazMat. If the entry team is making these observations and are unprotected, a tactical retreat may be appropriate to ensure they do not become a victim of the HazMat—a “blue canary.”

HazMat Checklist

SWAT command, team leaders, intelligence officers and/or negotiators must have an expanded list of questions when assessing a “threats and planning” an operation. They should have a basic understanding of how a HazMat affects the tactical teams’ mission as wella s how that couples with the human threat.

A specific line of HazMat questioning should always be pursued with witnesses, co-workers and family members. A large or unusual amount of common household materials may be an indicator of a suspects’ ulterior motive. Why would a suspect have several gallons of fuel on his second floor apartment balcony if he doesn’t have a generator or lawn mower? Could this be a “suicide by cop” scenario or some type of incendiary device? When you build a profile of a subject, take into consideration the HazMat factor.

Is the subject a chemical engineer or biologist? A plant worker with access to hazardous chemicals? A pool service worker / owner with large amounts of pool chemicals like chlorine, or muriatic acid on his work truck or in the garage? Is the subject current or former military? What is their military background: explosive ordinance disposal or nuclear, biological, chemical? What are their hobbies and personal interests? Does the subject refinish furniture (with chemicals)? Are they a recreational shooter (black powder, gunpowder)? A white supremacist (Ricin, bio-toxin)? A boy genius-mad-scientist like the “radioactive boy scout?”

When conducting structural assessments, asses all structures equally, whether they are a manufacturing plant, commercial storage facility or a residence—always ask similar questions in regards to HazMat. What is manufactured, stored or present at the location? What is the amount or volume and what state they are in (solid, liquid, gas)?

Propane and natural gas are safe and very commonly and used for both residential and commercial applications. When it is determined that propane or natural gas is present, the gas company should be immediately contacted immediately for assistance and they should be requested to respond.

Attempt to determine whether the location is fueled by an underground line or an underground or above ground tank. Determine where the tank is. Even a small, 20 pound tank for a barbeque grill can pose a serious threat. Commonly available fuels and household chemicals such as gasoline, chlorine, muriatic acid, turpentine, paint thinner and stain can be toxic and flammable.

Vehicle borne threats also include HazMat routinely carried by commercial transport, a rail car or a gasoline delivery truck. Commercial vehicles transporting HazMat must be placarded with a recognized U.S. Department of Transportation placard, which would be a place to start in your intel. It is extremely important in the tactical HazMat plan to determining the volume of the material, and whether the driver has the ability to disseminate the contents by opening a tank valve or disseminating other cargo contents.

Once requested and on scene, the HazMat officer must be consulted and be part of a unified command when dealing with a HazMat. The HazMat team members are subject matter experts (SME), providing critical information for inclusion into the tactical plan. The safety of the tactical operator and community is number one. If the HazMat team is not available, a fire department officer must be consulted.

HazMat Affects Tactics

If a HazMat is present, our options for working towards a tactical resolution may be limited or have to be adapted, or completely excluded. For example, the introduction of a pyrotechnic chemical agent munition, or a flash bang could ignite the HazMat. The muzzle flash from a firearm may ignite the gas or vapor.

What if the backstop or cover is a container or tank of hazardous materials like gasoline or propane? Tactical operators should know their ammo will probably penetrate commonly propane tank and will definitely penetrate a plastic gas can.

Realize also that the suspect may have an opportunity to disseminate the HazMat upon team entry. This chemical, biohazard or radiological material can cause exposure to the operator in by contact, inhalation or proximity. A liquid chemical such as acid will cause injury, but also consider hyper-cold venting propane that will immediately freeze skin causing severe injury.

Protective Measures

The first protective measure is conducting a proper and methodical assessment of the HazMat scene. This assessment begins by securing the non-hazard areas of the scene, i.e. establishing a safe standoff distance or perimeter. Once a HazMat assessment has been conducted, the next step is to ensure that the operators are protected. They must have the information and resources they need to safely achieve their objective. They should be briefed on what they can and cannot do when making an entry or approaching the vehicle.

Several options exist based on the presence of an actual or suspected HazMat. Negotiate a resolution—this negates the need for entry or approach and is the best solution for any tactical operation. Breach and hold negates the need for immediate entry and ventilates the structure. While this option is still hazardous, it may prompt the suspect to surrender. It also provides partial view of interior allowing for further assessment. Making an entry is the most hazardous and most complicated option. The human threat is always compounded by the complexity and danger of the HazMat.

Tactical operators must be more cognizant of booby traps, contacting, inhaling, spilling or stepping into HazMat, which can cause serious injury immediately or have short or long term delayed effects. The use of non-sparking breaching tools must be used when breaching to prevent the ignition of a HazMat as a result of a spark. Use intrinsically safe radios instead of unsafe or untested radios that could cause ignition or explosion in a highly volatile environment.

Of course, use the appropriate CBRN PPE such as an air purifying respirator (APR), powered air purifying respirator (PAPR), self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and a chemical protective suit ensemble. Specific equipment will be based on the threat, decided in conjunction with HazMat team officer and based on the teams PPE training and capabilities. Understanding and adapting our tactics to deal with HazMat is an additional path we must continue to pursue and understand.

Lt. Darin D. Dowe is a 24-year veteran of a large southeast Florida sheriff’s office, a veteran SWAT operator, tactical WMD program coordinator, SWAT instructor in multiple disciplines and a former sniper. Dowe also has a background in Homeland Security, investigations and patrol and is a frequent contributor to Tactical Response and LAW and ORDER. He can be reached via e-mail at dddswat@aol.com.

Published in Tactical Response, Jul/Aug 2011

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