Being an NCEC emergency responder (ER) requires more than just a good knowledge of chemicals.
ERs need to stay calm under pressure, and be clear communicators, problem solvers, and experts in industry and fire operations. Bringing all this together during an emergency call can be a stressful business! An example of how we do this happened just last night (28 October).
At 19:22 we received a call from the control room at Dorset Fire and Rescue Service, who were dealing with a chemical incident at a metal finishing company on a Weymouth industrial estate. It is part of NCEC’s national role to handle calls from the UK emergency services as part of Chemical Industries Association's Chemsafe scheme and we are supported in these activities by the Department for Transport and the Chemical Industries Association.
The Chemsafe role of an ER is not only to give prompt advice, but also to bring together emergency response elements from the emergency services and chemical manufacturers. We collect safety datasheets (SDS) from UK manufacturers, and use these to give fast, expert advice during emergencies, and make sure all the right people are talking to each other to get any incident resolved quickly and safely.
Of course, even prompt advice goes beyond simply reading off an SDS. Emergency service personnel require clear, accurate information about chemical hazards and precautions that should be taken in the event of an incident. Multiple (and sometimes conflicting) objectives must be met – primarily this is protecting people, property and the environment. First and foremost on a call such as this, the safety of the fire service personnel is paramount. The ER also needs to think laterally about how to address the incident at hand. They also need to recognise the cost impact of incident attendance and clean up, the effect of disruption to operations and the commercial implications from all sides… and all this in the first few minutes of a call!
In this incident, we learned there was a hazmat officer (or HMEPO) at the scene of the incident. In the UK, fire service HMEPOs receive extensive training and are true specialists in handling any kind of incident involving hazardous materials. However, even extensive training and experience in responding to dangerous goods incidents does not replace the insight and knowledge of a qualified and well-trained chemical expert. And it can be difficult to make a confident, objective chemical risk assessment at the incident scene on a cold, wet autumn night, without somebody to turn to for support.
Here, two trade named chemicals were undergoing a reaction after mixing during an industrial process. Access to specialist information was crucial in helping to respond.
The ER who took this call was one of NCEC’s newest ERs, but very quickly identified the reaction product as ammonia and recognised that it could form an explosive mixture with air between certain concentrations. This led to some immediate initial advice, but also a recommendation that the HMEPO should try to measure the atmospheric concentration of ammonia. This would tell the fire officer whether ammonia was present within the explosive limits – or, indeed, whether it was still present at all. After all, the fastest and least costly way to resolve the incident would be to prove the reaction had finished!
Having given information to safeguard the personnel on scene, our ER took steps to resolve the incident by setting up lines of communication where these were required. First, he made contact with the HMEPO at the incident scene and ensured the incident was under control. Second, he made contact with the company site manager and established the origin of the chemicals. Third, he contacted the chemical manufacturer (who happened to be a customer of NCEC) to ensure it was aware of the incident and able to contribute.
The incident at Weymouth industrial estate gained the attention of local press.