A good number of the hazardous material (HAZMAT) incidents that I respond to are unknown and/or suspicious packages. Most of the time these can be sorted out relatively quickly. Relative being an hour or two. It is after all, a HAZMAT call and there is nothing fast about HAZMAT calls. We (hazmat folks) get a significant amount of grief about the duration and complexity of HAZMAT calls. This is understandable. Individuals that are not HAZMAT technicians AND SOME THAT ARE do not appreciate the considerations that must be taken for any of these types of calls.
Accepted national standards and federal law impact us. So.. We have to consider statutory, regulatory and other standards during any HAZMAT response.
In addition to these considerations we now have the added component of explosives and other hazards designed and intended to injure and kill. For those that believe this is a bunch of nonsense I offer the following two examples. These are two HAZMAT incidents that I have been to in the last two weeks.
1. A disturbed individual uses a homemade laboratory to manufacture a lethal chemical toxin. The toxin was then used in a crime. This was a three-day event with multiple entries, agencies and hazards.
2. A package arrived at commercial occupancy that had the occupancies address as the return address to a package that had been returned - “return to sender”. The package was returned but no one in the commercial occupancy had any knowledge of the package. Due to several findings related to the package the threat that was found inside had to be taken seriously. The package was left sealed, and taken into evidence for further testing. This incident had several take home messages:
a. The individuals had opened the package and were potentially exposed to the contents
b. One of the people potentially exposed was a police officer
c. It is easy to sit back after the fact and question the intelligence of the folks opening the package. They had no reason to believe the package was hazardous in any way. This is a typical presentation for potentially hazardous and even suspicious packages. Very often they do not become suspicious until they are opened.
d. Our ability to communicate, cooperate and coordinate with partner agencies is critical. During this incident there were local, state and federal agencies involved.
e. Decontamination or not? This is not a simple decision. Once we began to decontaminate people the complexity, longevity and media attention are automatically increased.
f. We must weigh the benefit of decontamination with the potential problems that incur once we began to decontaminate others. Obviously if you believe there is a significant/clear risk we have to err on the side of public safety.
g. Have a plan what to do with the civilians potentially exposed. They will be scared, need information and know what do to protect themselves and their families. Usually we can address these concerns through the presumptive identification of the material in question. When we cannot identify the material we must provide information and have a plan for those potentially exposed.
h. Having a good understanding of when and how to package potential evidence is critical. This is not only for the legal aspects. We must be cognizant of the potential for contaminating the sample. Contamination may make a clear identification difficult to impossible. Careful coordination and training with our counterparts in Law Enforcement is critical.
In conclusion the complexity of the hazardous materials call has changed and evolved. It is incumbent upon us (hazmat responders) to understand and be prepared for this relatively new environment.
Next time we will discuss the hazardous device incident.
I am always interested to hear the thoughts, questions and opinions of others.
Until next time