How emergency responders can make or break effective emergency response

How emergency responders can make or break effective emergency response
01 August 2022

Core to any emergency response service is the ability to provide effective help to those involved in an incident. At NCEC, this means not just providing ‘information’ from the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) but applying our depth of knowledge and experience to provide actionable advice tailored to the circumstance and the caller at the scene of an incident. 

We are proud to have strong team of chemically trained emergency responders, who have experience in handling and providing advice to a variety of incident calls whenever and wherever they occur. The call process is a vital part of an effective response because this has a significant impact on the caller’s experience, helping them to stay calm and enabling them to take informed and appropriate action at the scene of an incident.

James Smith, one of NCEC’s Senior Emergency Responders, talks us through a real-life call and answers questions on how he was able to provide actionable advice to the caller.

James, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule as an emergency responder. So, you’ve recently responded to an incident involving a vandalised truck, please can you explain the situation?

No problem at all, thanks for having me. So, I receive a call from a first responder, who has been called to a vandalised truck carrying a mixed load of packaged dangerous goods. He can see that at least one package is leaking, but from the size of the pool on the tarmac he suspects there are several packages that could be causing the leak. He now needs to know what has to be done to gain control of the incident and clean-up the spillage.

What were your initial thoughts?

My first thoughts are always to understand the hazards of the products involved. A fundamental part of my role is to make sure that anyone responding to an incident has a good level of understanding of the substances that they are dealing with. At NCEC we start by using our bespoke software to access a safety data sheet (SDS) where a product name has been given, or to provide advice based on the UN number from our in-house chemical substance and mixture database, Chemdata.

This incident was more complicated due to the truck containing a mixed load and we didn’t yet know which product was leaking, so we had to consider all eventualities. In this case, we sourced multiple SDS’s and using those, Chemdata and our own extensive knowledge, we were able to establish what the worst-case scenario was. We initially advised based on this until we were able to establish what was leaking. With a mixed load, where multiple products may have leaked, we also had to consider any interactions between products. This means cross referencing the SDSs to see if there are any likely incompatibilities or expected reactions. This is not too complicated with three products, but with 8,9 or 10 products there is an exponentially increasing number of combinations we need to consider. This is where the experience and training of our team comes into its own with their ability to apply information given on the SDS and from on-scene reports.

Once you reviewed information from the product documentation such as SDS, what did you do next?

Whilst it is important for our callers to understand the hazards of the products, they are dealing with; our main role is to provide actionable advice.
I therefore ask lots of specific questions related to the scene so I can understand the context behind the incident and what the caller is looking at.
In this case, these were some of the questions I asked about the leaking package: how was the spill spreading – was it towards drains, a watercourse or an ignition source? The weather conditions, eg. wind direction, is it raining? Is there any evidence of different products mixing? Or is there any sign of a reaction?
This last point can be hard to recognise as not all reactions are visible. We talk the caller through how to recognise signs of a reaction in a safe manner. Can you hear anything? Can you see any bubbles? Is there a recognisable odour? We don’t generally ask them to try to feel or touch anything to minimise risk.
In this situation it did appear that there was a reaction between the products as the caller could see some bubbles in the mixture and there was an odour coming from the spill.

Why do you have to gather context from the caller?

Our priority is to provide actionable advice that is proportionate to the incident. Unless we have a good level of understanding of the context, providing advice is not possible. A critical part of our role is to utilise effective questioning strategies to make sure we always get all of the required context about the scene from those who are there.
For instance, many of our calls start with the question “please could I have a safety data sheet for product X,Y,Z?” It is only when we start questioning the caller about why the SDS is required, that get an understanding that they are dealing with an incident that they need support with.
In this call, the starting point was about how to clean up the spillage. Even with a hazardous product this could be a fairly simple situation to resolve but given the context of multiple products involved and that there appears to be a reaction, this incident not only involves advising how to clean up but establishing if and how it is safe to do so.

So, now you have gathered all the information from the caller about the spillage and reviewed the product information, what is the next step?

A key part of our questioning is to establish what help the caller actually needs. Different levels of caller experience will require different levels of help. For instance, when we are talking with an experienced fire service hazmat specialist the support could be focusing on developing a risk assessment as part of a tactical response.

The counterpoint would be where the caller has less experience with chemical products, and they need more reassurance, and step-by-step advice on how to manage their response (or help them get in touch with local support).
With the spillage incident, we were able to ascertain that two of the products being carried, Sodium Hypochlorite and Sodium Bisulphate had split open and were leaking. There were visible signs of a reaction occurring and we identified that this would result in a release of Chlorine gas. This, being toxic and corrosive, meant the response to the spillage had to be escalated, we advised that the incident would need the use of gas tight suits.

Whilst the individual SDS may have suggested that a chemically resistant suit, as opposed to a gas tight suit, would be sufficient to prevent any skin exposure during the clean up, this level of PPE would likely result in a number of responders being exposed to a toxic and corrosive gas. Our advice escalated the response but ensured that members of the public were kept a safe distance away and responders were using the appropriate level of PPE to safeguard their health whilst resolving the incident.
 

So, at this stage, the incident has been handled and you have made sure the caller understands the advice that has been provided, and the incident is now under control. Is that where your support ended?

No, there are some further considerations we have to make before we close our involvement with the incident. Firstly, we will have already agreed criteria with our customers on when we will immediately notify them that an incident has occurred. These can depend on factors such as the scale of the incident and the potential for media involvement. Where notification is required, we will do this straight away.

For all incidents we will then write a detailed report. These are sent to our customers so that they are aware of the incident, what happened and the support we provided. The report also makes sure that everyone in the responder team has access to information about the incident in case follow on calls are received.
Due to severity of this incident, the involvement of the emergency services and the potential hazard to the public, we did contact our clients and inform them. In the call report we included information about what had happened, what was spilt and how we formulated our advice. We explained why we came to conclusions about reactions or risks and how we used this to inform the plan and suggested course of action.
 
NCEC provides the market leading telephone emergency response service, not only because of the high-quality advice we provide to callers at the scene of an incident, but also, because of the wider support we offer as part of our emergency response service, such as our detailed call reporting.

To find out how NCEC can support your organisation by providing a telephone emergency response service that provides advice, and offers detailed post incident insights in call reports, fill out the form on this page.