15 & 16 February 2011 at the Crowne Plaza, Birmingham
A Report from Tabitha Petchey, NCEC Emergency Responder
Held at Birmingham’s Crowne Plaza hotel near the NEC on 15 and 16 February 2011, this year’s Hazmat event was judged one of the most informative yet. This was the fourth such event, now established as one of the main avenues for Hazmat specialists to share experiences and knowledge. The basis of the event was a series of presentations set over two days and covering a variety of topics, including the various arrangements that have been put in place to assist response to chemical emergencies, such as virtual training and the ChlorAid scheme.
Hazmat Event 2011 audience
All the subjects covered were relevant to people involved in chemical incident response and the setting provided a great opportunity to question and discuss content both in the forum and one-to-one. Delegates were drawn from fire services, police forces, the MOD, chemical industry and bodies such as the Environment Agency, the Health Protection Agency and the Met Office. Bill Atkinson, Emergency Response Knowledge Leader, chaired the event.
Acting Assistant Chief Fire Officer Dave Walton of West Midlands Fire Service (now HazMat lead for the UK Chief Fire Officers' Association, CFOA) opened the event by outlining the key themes for the two days as well as background issues in the current climate, such as budget cuts and the need to do more with less. He illustrated this with a case study of an incident involving the release of chlorine gas at a swimming pool (a relatively common accident), requiring extensive management and incurring high cost – something that could have been avoided by the implementation of a simple chlorine meter of relatively low cost. He also outlined a new scheme to make a team of retained scientific advisors available to attend incidents for the provision of on-scene guidance.
Following on from this, his colleague Rob Mitchell described a new virtual reality training package that West Midlands Fire Service is developing to improve the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of delivering Hazmat training across the Brigade. He walked the audience through the program via the projector and introduced the 'teachers' by way of short video recordings, explaining how both the training and assessment techniques are effective due to their interactive nature.
Day 1 speakers
Some of our day 1 speakers (L to R): Bob Hark (West Midlands FRS), Rob Mitchell (West Midlands FRS), Philip Rodger (Bureau Veritas), Stephen Roberts (ChlorAid), Bill Atkinson (former NCEC), Waldemar Bujalski (University of Birmingham)
Bob Hark, now back in Dorset from his secondment to the Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor (Sir Ken Knight), gave an update on the Hazmat operational guidance manual, which is expected to be published this Autumn. The purpose of this is to reduce risk to fire-fighters and the public whilst promoting effective strategy building. It contains instructions on the handling of incidents involving hazardous materials including CBRN. The instructions, which are not steadfast, provide a good basis to work from; some situations, in particular the approach towards acetylene cylinders, have been reviewed thoroughly for this.
Tim Donovan of the Met Office outlined changes to the CHEMET and Firemet schemes, which help to predict the direction of smoke and gas plumes from fires and chemical releases, including more detailed CHEMET outputs.
Several case studies gave thought-provoking insights into incident management. Notably, Dr. Phil Rodger of Bureau Veritas gave a frank account of the use of chemicals in suicides. He covered various methods used such as reactions yielding toxic gases and the risks posed to the responder on scene. The situation is arising with increasing frequency as the sharing of information becomes quicker and easier via the internet.
Dave Warren, of Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, recounted the impact and some lessons learned from trying to extinguish a large fire in a facility for recycling tyres. A large scale fire like this poses many tactical decisions to be made, in particular what method to use to put out the fire and considering the possibility of performing a controlled burn. This might turn out to be the safest and most cost effective solution but a thick smoke plume will be a cause of concern to the public so there is also PR to be considered.
Greg Bennett of Greater Manchester Police gave the police perspective on a recent chemical leak incident on Junction 12 of the M60. His example portrayed the logistical nightmare caused by road accidents involving chemicals. In this case, a couple of IBCs on a lorry had been shunted so that a leak was caused and the road had to be closed for two hours. It was clear how, on such a busy interchange, this would be very awkward for the police to manage, even for a relatively minor incident with no casualties.
Another theme covered at the conference included sources of help available during incidents. Stephen Roberts outlined assistance available under the ChlorAid scheme, the common myths associated with chlorine gas and the fact that most chlorine gas incidents involve sodium hypochlorite reactions. In particular, he wanted to stress that chlorine gas is only green-yellow at high concentrations and otherwise invisible. It is, however, not usually immediately fatal on one breath
Kathryn Roberts, one of NCEC's emergency responders, spoke about the links and differences between NCEC’s roles as 1st level emergency response provider and as an adviser to the emergency services under the Chemsafe scheme. She particularly highlighted the importance of communicating accurate details of the emergency scene to responders in order to get the most relevant advice, using the example of one of her own calls to demonstrate this.
Steve Wenham talked about the Environment Agency and the importance of its partnership with the Fire Service from the EA’s perspective. He underlined the role of the EA as well as their priorities and the main causes of both accidental and deliberate releases of pollutants.
On transport issues, Clive Dennis from the HSE gave an overview of enforcement issues surrounding the carriage of dangerous goods by road, including enforcement methods and the problems associated with them. This was accompanied by several pictures of malpractice incidents illustrating either apathy or ignorance of the legislation. Similarly, Ali Karim of the Hazchem Network discussed the classification of chemicals, modes of transport and the common mistakes that are made in packing and loading, such as not considering the centre of gravity of a load.
Dr Andy Holton talked about the British Association of Dangerous Goods Professionals (BADGP), which is a non-profit organisation coming into existence to provide support to people involved with dangerous goods. The initiative was well received by the audience, including a Dangerous Goods Safety Adviser (DGSA) working for the MOD.
Colin Fenwick, a DGSA from Wincanton, explained thoroughly the extent to which the company go to ensure that Wincanton drivers are well-trained and well-equipped for an emergency situation. He referenced a recent incident on the M1, for which Wincanton was commended by a Fire Service audience member who had witnessed their actions.
Day 2 speakers
Some of our day 2 speakers (L to R): Nick Bailey (Braemar Howells), Ali Karim (Hazchem Network), Kathryn Roberts (NCEC), Bill Atkinson (former NCEC), Steve Wernham (Environment Agency), Clive Dennis (HSE), Andy Holton (BADGP)
Nick Bailey of Braemar Howells, explained the company’s capabilities as a clean-up company (3rd-level response) and provided examples of several significant incidents including a paraquat tank transfer. Paraquat is a weed killer that has been banned in the EU since 2007, because of its high toxicity, therefore a damaged bulk tanker full of paraquat is naturally a delicate issue.
On a more academic note, Dr. Waldemar Bujalski from the University of Birmingham spoke about the scientific development of hydrogen fuel cells and how improvements in this area are making them a viable alternative to fossil fuels. He illustrated this with a video of a hydrogen powered car developed at the university. This potential new technology holds different hazards from carbon-based fuels in road traffic collisions. Tests so far suggest that a hydrogen tank is less likely to explode than a liquid fuel; in the event of a rupture, the burning gas escapes upwards, whereas liquids will tend to pool beneath the vehicle and heat the fuel tank causing a pressure explosion.
Prior to the main event, a drinks reception and informal dinner allowed all participants to mingle and find common ground. This was a great way to share experiences, particularly in terms of getting feedback from the fire service on their use of NCEC during chemical incidents and practice exercises, hopefully leading to more efficient cooperation in the future.