Every year, nearly ten million tons of industrial chemical liquids and gases used in U.S. manufacturing flow through 2.1 million miles of pipelines and across 200,000 miles of railroad track, highways and inland waterways. These toxic industrial chemicals, classified as Toxic Inhalation Hazards, are substances known to pose a danger to humans in the event of a release.

Challenges to first responders

The prevalence of these chemicals presents challenges to first-responder organizations, changing the nature and complexity of emergency situations in specific ways:

  • An incident may involve fire, a visible and readily-identifiable threat. But there may be other unseen threats — chemical vapors or radiation. Not long ago, response often focused on putting out fires and extricating people from structures without serious consideration of these unseen threats. Now the chemicals used in manufacturing, held in storage facilities and transported by truck and rail require a range of data collection and analysis tools to responsibly mitigate risks.

  • Local emergency response organizations, especially in smaller rural areas, may be staffed by volunteers, few of whom are broadly trained experts. Even fewer may have advanced training in hazmat assessment and remediation.

  • Experts required for situational analysis might be far removed from an incident site.

  • The complexity and scope of hazmat incidents might exceed response abilities, training and equipment of local first-responder organizations.

    These challenges are driving a new approach to response — one far more reliant on information. Here are five ways more, better and faster information is improving response efforts:

    1) Sensing & monitoring equipment

    Equipment to detect and alert responders to unseen threats has become a life-critical requirement. Effective response solutions must include personal protection and detection tools for rapid broadband detection of — and protection from — chemical vapor and radiological threats, combined with deployable monitoring networks to monitor site perimeters and alert incident commanders to the movement and nature of hazardous vapor clouds.

    For equipment to be effective, users must be continually trained in safe operation and how to interpret readings, and equipment must be functional and calibrated. Training should include not only operation of equipment in a classroom, but also when trainees are fully suited with respiratory protection, protective suits and multi-layered gloves.

    Equipment functionality can be assured by using manufacturer’s bump test or calibration procedures. Automated systems(1) available for auto-calibration, bump testing and charging can ensure that readings are accurate and that equipment is always ready to go.

    2) Decision support tools

    A bewildering array of possible toxic chemicals may exist at an incident site, making a chaotic situation difficult to manage. The National Fire Protection Association’s Standard for Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents 472 suggests that all responders collect physical clues to help identify materials involved in incidents.

    New technology has led to the availability of decision support systems(2) that use physically observed characteristics such as colors, textures, gas or liquid, heavier than air, and odors to quickly and systematically identify potential agents involved in an incident. Offering fast, real-time identification and assessment of hazards, the system addresses the unique needs of first responders. An integrated response database consists of more than 91,000 chemical, biological warfare and bioterror agents, trade names and improvised explosive devices.

    3) Access to expertise

    Once on scene, first responders often realize that they need additional private, state and federal agency expertise. One issue that must be addressed is how to export on-scene information in real-time without relying on voice communication. Best practices call for real-time delivery of data using remote access technology solutions to connect an incident commander’s data screen with remote experts.

    The most direct solution today involves using secure data transfer over the Internet. With today’s sophisticated incident command centers and their ability to connect securely to the Internet, one solution is to have remote servers that can aggregate and store sensor data from multiple networks(3) and enable responders to share this real-time data through a secure online interface(4) with experts in remote locations.

    4) Who to call?

    The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH) based in Little Rock, Ark., is an example of a private rapid-response company. CTEH provides a range of services, including toxicology, risk assessment, industrial hygiene, occupational health, litigation support, and response to emergencies or other events involving release or threat of release of chemicals. Dispatched by corporate jet, CTEH experts can assist local and regional first-responder organizations to quickly assess hazardous situations and define cost-effective and optimized responses to minimize the loss of life and property.

    5) Retention and reuse of real-time data

    Use of sensing and monitoring instruments in a hazardous environment provides valuable real-time data streams. This data can be used for training programs, reviewing response techniques and effectiveness, and can establish key events in a hazmat timeline for reporting and litigation support.

    From detection to decision

    Using information tools in conjunction with the latest sensing and monitoring technologies gives first responders and industrial hygienists the ability to move from detection to decision in a matter of seconds. A comprehensive knowledge base, advanced analytical capabilities, access to expertise and cutting-edge sensing equipment are all central to life-critical decision support and first-response capabilities.

    FOOTNOTES: (1) AutoRAE from RAE Systems, Inc. (2) HazRAE from RAE Systems, Inc. (3) AreaRAE networks from RAE Systems, Inc. (4) RAEShare Web-hosted incident data management from RAE Systems, Inc.

    SIDEBAR: The emerging role of industrial hygienists

    Never before have industrial hygienists been so relied on for their expertise in a complex world. The range of activities and responsibilities is greater than the title might imply — from developing techniques to anticipate and control potentially dangerous situations in the workplace and community to ensuring workers follow health and safety procedures and investigating and examining the workplace for hazards and potential dangers. Today's industrial hygienists are playing an increasing role in effective and safe emergency response.