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Patrol Response to Hazardous Materials

Written by Darin Dowe

The first responder community has justifiably emphasized that a WMD/HazMat is a weapon the domestic and international terrorist have and will use. However, it is more likely that we could be accidentally exposed to a HazMat during our patrol tour. We must re-emphasize the importance of understanding how to conduct a HazMat scene assessment and knowing what resources are available to negate or minimize injury to ourselves, first responders and the community.

Chemical, biological/biohazard or radiological hazardous materials can be encountered on the scene of a vehicle crash, while searching for suspects in or around commercial structures, while investigating sick person calls or while conducting general investigations. Many times we ignore the obvious safety indicators, some of which we may not be trained to recognize.

Vehicle HazMat

Law enforcement routinely encounters vehicles transporting HazMat during crash investigations, traffic stops and commercial vehicle inspections. These include service vehicles (pool chemicals and cleaning solutions); fuel vehicles (gasoline, propane, LNG or fuel oil); surveyors carrying instruments used for radiography (Cobalt 60/Iridium 192), i.e., the testing and grading of welds or pipelines; pest control vehicles carrying toxic chemicals (sulfuryl fluoride) for residential fumigation; medical suppliers carrying radiological pharmaceuticals (Iodine 131/99m Technicium); and special carriers of biological/bio-hazardous materials (toxins, contaminated blood) being transported to a lab for analysis. The larger danger by sheer mass and volume are commercial trucks and trains involved in a crash or derailment.

When we arrive on the scene of a vehicle crash, we secure the scene and render first aid. What most of us do not do is determine if the vehicle contains any HazMat. When we conduct a traffic stop, our primary concern is the occupant. We tactically approach the vehicle and eyeball the interior compartment for accessible weapons or contraband, but what about HazMat chemicals in a bucket or container with radiological markings?

Structural HazMat

We routinely enter and search structures, fenced compounds and work yards that contain HazMat. When we enter “Acme Chemicals” or see the multi-colored NFPA 704 Diamond, we should recognize it as an indicator of potential dangers within.

Hospitals are not always innocuous locations we believe they are. In September 2010, at John Hopkins University hospital a patient’s son shot and killed his mother’s doctor, he barricaded himself in her room and committed suicide. This incident required a combined patrol and SWAT response. He could have gone mobile, i.e., become an active shooter and barricaded himself in the nuclear medicine department or lab, complicating the incident.

Radiological materials in hospitals are commonly used for diagnostic procedures, cancer treatment-chemotherapy (Iodine 131, 99m Technecium, Indium 111) and to irradiate (sterilize) medical products, i.e., blood.

It is important for law enforcement to be aware of critical areas within their hospitals. The radiological and nuclear medicine departments are two areas to be careful of. These areas and rooms are posted with signs at perimeter doors indicating the presence of radiological materials and instruments. The access to treatment and diagnostic areas is limited to designated staff and patients under escort. The access to radiological material is further limited and locked in an area with more restricted and controlled access.

Officers on patrol could encounter radio-pharmaceuticals in a vehicle during transport to and from the hospital. If the Iodine 131 or other source containers (cardboard shipping box, plastic transportation container and/or lead cylinder) were breached as a result of an incident or crash, and/or opened by an inquisitive first responder or witness, either one could be exposed to a high dose of radiation in a short time. Some chemotherapy is contained in a single dose syringe. Other radioactive sources are required less frequently used to maintain diagnostic equipment.

Bio-hazardous materials are everywhere in a hospital and disposed of in clearly marked red bags and containers. As with any blood-borne pathogen and sharps (needle), they should be avoided. A large bulk would be found in the incinerator area for disposal.

Most common household and office materials, such as furniture, televisions, plastics and chemicals, become toxic when burned. Smoke is an obvious indicator of a substance we shouldn't breathe or be near. Garages contain dangerous accelerants such as gasoline, turpentine, wood stain, as well as propane and liquid natural gas used for heating and BBQ grills. If you have information regarding the presence of HazMat notify fire-rescue is and solicit their guidance.

Hydrogen Sulfide and Hydrogen Cyanide Suicide

A prevalent, increasing and dangerous method of suicide, one that is injuring first responders, is chemical suicide, commonly known as hydrogen sulfide (H2S) or detergent suicide. If you Google hydrogen sulfide suicide, the search will return more than 62,000 hits. These hits provide the origin, procedure and recipe to carry out the suicide.

A victim will usually park their car in a remote area, or seclude themself in a bedroom or tent that confines the gas. They mix two common household chemicals, possibly an acid (Drano, LySol, muriatic acid) and a sulfur (detergent, pesticide, spackling paste, paint, or shampoo), which produces the gas. The victim may or may nor post a sign on the vehicle window or bedroom door warning the first responder to call HazMat or poison control.

If you approach a vehicle or enter a residence and smell rotten eggs, are close enough to see the warning sign, chemicals or liquid in a bucket or pan, it is likely a H2S suicide and you are already exposed. Get away. Once the H2S is inhaled, it diminishes the sense of smell. We will continue to breath, thinking we have not been exposed, worsening our situation. The better option is to assess from afar with binoculars, gather intelligence, attempt contact via the PA and wait for fire-rescue to arrive.

In November 2010, a University of South Florida professor who worked in the Global Health Laboratory committed suicide in a Florida hotel room using hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Her actions put hotel occupants and first responders at risk. HCN is extremely dangerous and smells like bitter almonds. HCN was used as a suicide agent by the Nazi’s in WWII and as a weapon by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo. HCN is commonly used in industry for electroplating, plastics manufacturing and the extraction of metal ores.

In February 2011, in West Palm Beach, Fla., a state road ranger encountered a pickup truck parked on Interstate 95. When he approached the vehicle, he observed a 10-year old boy covered in chemicals and convulsing. It was determined that the boys’ father had used chemicals as a weapon and poured them over the boys head. The boy’s twin sister was found dead in the pickup. First responders became sick while attempting to render first aid to the boy, triggering a HazMat response. The father stated he doused himself in gasoline and intended to commit suicide. A routine traffic assist led to first responder exposures.

Consider the locations where we conduct our interviews. An interview room will not always be available. We should not conduct interviews in a subject’s garage or a workplace, where he is in arms reach of, or has immediate access to, HazMat that could be used as a weapon. Readily accessible chemicals that could be thrown at an officer or ignited are a threat. We should also be aware of chemical companies, water treatment plants, and manufacturing businesses that store and utilize dangerous chemicals. The presence of containers or tanks, venting of chemicals or gases, powders, corrosive material, signage on a building, hospitals or industrial plants, are likely indicators of a HazMat. This information should be taken into consideration when taking action.

Medical Incidents with Multiple Victims

When we are dispatched to a medical call involving multiple sick persons down, we must conduct a thorough assessment. If the caller or witnesses did not advise the victims were accidentally exposed to a chemical at their job site, were shot, stabbed or have obvious physical trauma, etc., it could be an intentional act, a WMD, or a HazMat. Responding officers must maintain their distance until arriving resources with personal protective equipment and detection equipment can assess situation, mitigate the threat if possible and treat the victims.

First responders are injured through inhalation, ingestion, absorption-contact, injection (through skin) and proximity (radiation). Some basic principles to follow at the scene of a HazMat are to approach from upwind, limit your time exposed to the threat, maximize your distance and get behind a proper barrier.

Most calls we are dispatched do not include the fact that HazMat are present on site, unless specified. There are several references first responders can use during a known HazMat incident or when responding and assessing a possible HazMat situation. These are the NFPA 704 diamond, Emergency Response Guide (ERG), Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), human sources, call specifics (caller information, location, threat) and current HazMat trends. The most important is our senses, knowledge and training. We must slow down and visually evaluate the scene from a safe distance. Use these resources and attempt to recognize the HazMat.

NFPA 704 Diamond

Most jurisdictions and states with and without an OSHA plan mandate that commercial structures and fixed 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 at a quick glance. The placards display a threat scale numbering 0-4, (4 being the highest hazard) in each quadrant of the diamond.

Each quadrant is color coded. Blue is health, exposure to a substance could cause symptoms from minor injury to death. Red is flammability or fire potential. Yellow stands for instability or reactivity, such as being readily capable of explosion or merely being unstable at elevated temperatures. White is special, as in biological, radiological, oxidizer or water reactive.

Personnel need to recognize these symbols and relay their observations to police and fire command for evaluation, i.e., “flammability (red) is 4 or special (white) is oxy.” Placards would likely be encountered when responding to a call for service or searching for a suspect in a commercial area.

The Emergency Response Guide (ERG) is a document used to identify placards affixed to commercial vehicles transporting HazMat. The placard utilizes numbers, symbols (flame, radioactive trefoil, skull and cross bones) and colors to identify whether the HazMat is flammable, combustible, explosive, radioactive, toxic or corrosive. Some HazMat are more specifically identified by a 4 digit Hazardous Material Identification Number.

Once the class or specific contents are identified, the ERG provides pertinent information regarding the hazard, protective equipment and evacuation distances. To date, approximately 11 million copies of the ERG have been distributed free of charge to first responders in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. This resource is also available online for computer download.

When we fail to recognize the presence of a HazMat during the performance of our duties, we put ourselves, fellow responders and the community at risk. We must increase our awareness and make HazMat part of our mindset. Your fire department is an excellent resource for training and knowledge of local HazMat, so use them. Even if an your department has an exigency you cannot become a victim of the incident, compounding the problem, taxing resources and delaying a successful resolution. We must recognize the HazMat and assess before we act.

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 Law and Order, Jun 2011

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