With the chemical industry expanding into new regions across the world, chemical supply chains are now wider than ever. When responding to chemical incidents, fire services must be prepared to encounter a growing number of potentially hazardous substances, each with their own bespoke handling procedures. However, while the chemical industry is growing many fire services are finding their budgets shrinking, requiring crews to reduce the time and cost of deployment for each incident.
In this article, Maria Stearn of the UK’s National Chemical Emergency Centre (NCEC) explores the importance of combining global chemical data with proportionate advice to help fire services deliver the quickest, safest and most efficient chemical incident response.
Supporting global supply chains
Fire services play a dual role in the global chemical supply chain. With one hand they fulfil their primary duty of protecting members of the public from the risks of hazardous chemicals transport and use. With the other, they provide security to the markets that connect manufactures, distributors and end users across the world. Today, the value of emergency response is recognised as a core component for stability and growth in chemical export, not only for developed nations but in emerging regions around the world.
However, the immediate impact of this globalisation is that potentially hazardous products are emerging onto the market at a faster rate than ever before. When attending a chemical incident, emergency response crews must be prepared to encounter a vast number of substances with a range of different chemical names, brands and formulas, each with diverse hazards and handling procedures. Chemical hazard databases that provide up-to-date information on every substance likely to be encountered in the field are therefore key components in fire services’ incident response arsenal.
Emergency responders must also balance this commitment to rigorous response with the need to reduce the time of deployment. This is increasingly important, not only to free capacity for emergencies but to reduce the cost of deployment, particularly where fire services operate within fixed or diminishing budgets. Adapting chemical databases to deliver more practical and proportionate advice has been identified as an effective way to help crews reduce the time and cost of chemical incident response while maintaining the safest procedures possible.
The value of proportionate advice
The hazards posed by a chemical substance vary significantly depending on the volume and nature of the spill. By considering hazards not only in terms of chemical properties but also in relation to spill volume, fire services are able to select precise response procedures and avoid unnecessary deployment of personnel or equipment.
For example, the UK’s National Chemical Emergency Centre (NCEC) classifies nitric acid, a substance widely used in many processes including fertiliser, dye and pharmaceutical production, as a highly corrosive material which reacts strongly with metals to produce toxic nitrogen dioxide fumes. In responding to a nitric acid spill, NCEC recommends a range of personal safety precautions and handling procedures. These include standing up-wind of the incident to avoid toxic inhalation and never pouring water into concentrated nitric acid, as the resulting vapour pressure will create a serious explosion hazard. It also recommends the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary for handling an incident: liquid tight suits for spills of less than 25 litres and gas tight protective clothing for anything larger.
Large spills of nitric acid therefore pose immediate risk to members of the public, the environment and emergency responders. However, while fire services must be prepared for a major incident they are statistically more likely to be called out for smaller spills. In many cases, this significantly changes the level of response required. When responding to a spill of nitric acid less than 1 litre in volume, NCEC recommends using a fire kit, breathing apparatus and protective gloves and boots rather than a chemical protective suit. The advantage of this is clear; the level of PPE preparation is less time intensive for a very small spill and less restrictive on the movement of the responder. Such proportionate advice therefore improves response times at each stage of the incident handling lifecycle, particularly during decontamination. Knowing when to thoroughly decontaminate equipment and collect run off water or simply wipe down a dry suit translates to a significant saving in time, freeing resources for more valuable deployment.
Scheduled for early 2016 release, NCEC’s updated Chemdata chemical database will help fire services to cut the time and cost of attending chemical incidents by expanding its advice to include spills less than 1 litre in volume. Designed for use in moments of emergency, Chemdata is a global, multilingual service that provides instant access to detailed information on over 60,000 chemical substance and 175,000 product names. Available on desktop, iOS and Android operating systems, the tool provides practical and proportionate advice to help fire services make split second decisions in hazardous chemical environments, whether implementing snatch rescue operations or responding to minor or major spills.
Chemdata is developed with the direct input of fire service and emergency responders from around the world. For over 30 years the system has provided industry leading information on the chemical hazards and reactivity, necessary PPE, precautionary actions, environmental priorities and essential first aid required to handle chemical substances. Chemdata also provides general advice on contemporary topics in incident response. This includes advice on emerging trends in the chemical industry, including fuel cell and clean transport technology, and guidance on handling incidents of chemical misuse, such as explosives or narcotics manufacture.
The changing face of industry
As the chemical industry expands, governments, emergency services and private sector organisations across the world are coming together to improve safety provisions for chemical supply chains. Access to proportionate chemical advice plays an important role in helping fire services accommodate this expansion while preserving efficiency, whether responding to spills the size of a lorry load or those no larger than a pin drop.
This advice must only be provided by a credible and trusted source, as mishandling even a pin drop of some chemical substances can have tragic consequences. For more than 40 years, NCEC has worked with emergency responders and industry experts to provide comprehensive information on industrial and household chemical emergency response. By expanding the Chemdata solution to offer a greater degree of proportionate response, fire services are now able to optimise each step of the incident lifecycle, without a trade-off in rigour or security.
For more information on Chemdata or any of NCEC’s international services visit
www.the-ncec.com or contact Maria Stearn at