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First Responders at the Awareness Level are expected to recognize the presence of hazardous materials, protect themselves appropriately, call for help, and secure the area.
Several clues can provide assistance in establishing the presence and identity of a hazardous material. Use your senses, but with caution. Many hazardous materials have odors or produce visible clouds. Even though the presence of some materials can be detected by smell at very low and even non-toxic levels, this is not a reliable indicator of potential toxicity. Other materials can be fatal without any detectable odor. If an odor is detectable, you may already be too close and need to retreat.
Another clue is the nature of the site of the incident. Anticipate the presence of certain kinds of materials in certain types of buildings. For example, a burning barn or hardware store is likely to contain pesticides and should be dealt with accordingly. Manufacturing facilities are likely to have a variety of solvents. Tank farms will probably contain petroleum products. Other types of structures may provide clues about the hazardous materials they might contain.
If containers are involved, the shape may provide a clue to the contents. While not likely to identify the specific chemical name, the silhouette guide may identify the general type of material involved.
Markings on containers, buildings, or facilities may also provide material identification information. Under DOT regulations, some rail cars must be labeled with the name of the material they contain (see Railroad Tank Car Marking System ). The NFPA 704 placard system (see Table 1 ) is widely used on container labels and fixed facilities. This system provides valuable information about the risks associated with the material(s) in the facility. Other marking systems exist which are similar to the NFPA 704 system. DOT placards on vehicles may provide an additional clue to the nature of the contents. These placards on vehicles may include or be found above an identification number. This number is the UN Number for the material contained in the vehicle and can be used to identify the material or class of material by using this book or the North American Emergency Response Guide. DOT symbols may also be used as labels on containers of material in commerce. All markings on vehicles, buildings, and rail cars should be observed from the greatest distance possible. First Responders should carry a pair of good binoculars.
First Responders may have access to papers describing the contents of shipments (shipping papers, bills of lading, etc.) and/or the hazards associated with these materials. At a fixed facility MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets), which will identify the specific material(s) and associated hazards, should be available. Shipping papers, which identify the chemical or chemicals present, are usually located in the cabs of trucks, the first engine of freight trains, on the bridge of ships and in a marked tube-like container on the deck of a barge. Frequently during transportation accidents shipping papers are inaccessible and identifying the involved materials becomes part of the overall problem. Until the material is identified, it should be treated as if it were extremely hazardous.
Securing the area around a hazardous materials incident is a vitally important action of the First Responder. It may not be immediately apparent what area to secure, particularly if the hazardous substance and/or quantity are unknown. It is usually wise to secure a wide area, particularly if the material is known to be highly toxic. In general, keep ignition sources, such as sparks and flares, out of the secured area until you know that there is no flammability or explosion risk.
For large releases of flammable, explosive or toxic gases, the First Responder must alert inhabitants of the surrounding area. This is particularly true for heavier-than-air gases or vapors, which will not disperse as they spread. Do not expose yourself to the material by entering areas downwind or below grade. Evacuation, with all of its difficulties, will be necessary for some materials and situations. For others, the best option is to shelter in place - that is, move people inside, close doors and windows, and shut down air intake distribution systems - until the gas or vapor has moved past or dispersed. Remember that wind directions may change during an incident, so the at-risk populations or areas need to be continually reevaluated with on-site wind direction information.
Remember that a dead or injured First Responder is of no help to anyone. Protect yourself! Do not enter the contaminated area. Do not attempt to rescue victims who have been contaminated with highly toxic or dangerous materials. Fire fighting gear is not chemical protective clothing. Many chemicals call for specialized personal protective clothing and expertise that is above the capability of Awareness or Operational level personnel.