Safety and Responders Share the Stage

We're making the response community aware that we're a resource, if they want to use us.'

Editor's note: Safety and hazmat professionals can be and should be major contributors to overall emergency preparedness, says Steve Laughlin, CHMM, of CJ&K Training Services in Lindenhurst, Ill. Laughlin, who coordinates Emergency Response Scenarios at annual conferences of the Academy of Certified Hazardous Materials Managers, Inc., believes such events alert the response community to safety professionals' skills and knowledge. He discussed training, typical hazards, and current issues in hazmat response during an Aug. 9, 2006, conversation with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

What do these Emergency Response Scenarios involve?

Steve Laughlin: The first one I was in charge of was in St. Louis, back in 2005, and then I'll be responsible for the one we're doing in Orlando in September [2006]. . . . We usually look at where the conference is going to be and try to develop a scenario that ties in with the area.

Is it based on something that's produced there or transported through there?

Yes. For example, methamphetamine is a huge problem in the St. Louis area. The Midwest has probably a larger issue with methamphetamine than any other part of the country, and there are some counties outside of St. Louis that rank as the meth capitals of the country. There was a nice tie-in for our organization because meth labs use a lot of industrial chemicals and there are significant safety hazards involved with these labs. There is also a hazard for the law enforcement personnel responding to these situations.

I made a couple of phone calls; we tracked down the Missouri Drug Task Force and asked them if they'd be willing to do a demonstration. What we wanted to do was show the potential for an uncontrolled chemical reaction or detonation. The Missouri Drug Task Force did a little role play, where a couple of them acted like the drug dealers. They showed how they go in, what kind of PPE they wear when they do the initial bust, and then, down the road, how they would clean, how they would decon. After the role play, participants were able to walk up to the lab and see the kinds of chemicals they use, ask questions of the Task Force and fire department, and examine some of the equipment that is used.

In Orlando this year, we're going to be detonating a "dirty bomb." That is a very hot topic in the country these days. We'll have a lot of public-sector people: department of environmental protection people, FBI, local police, local fire departments, offices of emergency management. A lot of people are very interested in this drill we're doing this year.

These sound similar, though I'm sure not in scale, to the DHS' TOPOFF drills.

TOPOFF is intended to test the response capabilities of those that would be involved if such a thing were to happen. We're not really testing them on how well they do it. It's more a demonstration of capabilities, although our membership does complete a critique which my committee will consolidate into a report and provide to the response organizations that participate.

You've mentioned dirty bombs and methamphetamine. What other issues and problems are hazmat emergency responders encountering these days?

It's still a fairly dirty science. Hazmat always kind of tries to work its way through as they go. We always fight through the issues of air monitoring devices and having all the right equipment and having all the right PPE.

As an instructor, I worry about the level of training these hazmat teams have received and whether it was really sufficient or not. Do they really understand what kind of PPE they should be wearing? Do they realize there's more than one kind of glove? Do they really know how to operate that air monitoring device? How well they understand the principles involved with the safety side of it, is always a concern.

That's all nuts-and-bolts stuff. That's not the big picture, but the small.

Yes. And from the big picture, as you point out, terrorism is not new in this country, though a lot of people think it is. We certainly are more attuned to it, and we're trying to be one step ahead of everyone.

I mentioned air monitoring equipment. Back in the day, the standard procedure for a hazmat incident is that you would take out your four-gas meter, and your [sampling] tubes, and your PID, and you would monitor the air to make sure that it wasn't toxic and that you had the right respiratory protection. Now, the question is, "Okay, there's a white powder floating through the air. How do we know if it's anthrax or baking flour?"

Exactly: In real time--or even close to real time--how you would know that.

Until recently, we didn't have a way to do that. If you look back at the anthrax incidents in Washington with the mail services, they weren't able to identify it quickly. It took a while for it to get to the labs [and] get the labs to analyze it. There are some firms out there now that are coming up with real-time air monitoring devices for biological hazards. Events change your perspective.

A biological hazard used to be viewed as rodents and parasites on a condemned piece of property you were cleaning up. It still is. We've just broadened the concept of a biological hazard for hazmat responders.

It used to just be chemical hazmat: It was a tanker truck with sulfuric acid that rolled over, a pipeline of anhydrous ammonia leaking. We only worried about chemical hazards; now we've got this whole new area that's falling within our realm of expectation. Again, from a training perspective, you're right back to square one: Do these guys even understand what anthrax is, what it does? Are they capable of responding to that kind of thing?

A lot of these units have gotten more funding for equipment and PPE from DHS, haven't they? Are they generally using the money well and are they well equipped, in your opinion?

I probably can't speak accurately to that because I don't work in the public sector. . . . I do have a couple of fire departments that I work with, and they certainly are doing everything they can to get up to speed. Certainly, some are better than others; some county hazmat teams are viewed as among the best in the country. But if there's a best in the country, there's a worst in the country out there somewhere, too.

From the CHMM's perspective, as safety professionals--are we putting the responsibility of buying the equipment and whatnot in the hands of somebody who even knows what they're looking for? From an industrial standpoint, I get nervous when I hear that the purchasing people are the ones not only buying, but selecting the safety equipment. No offense to purchasing people, but they're probably not the person who should be buying the respiratory cartridges and the gloves.

What about the added federal, state, and sometimes local mandates that responders are under now? I'm thinking of jurisdictions such as Washington, D.C., that are trying to reroute hazmat shipments so they wouldn't be going through high-risk areas. Have these added a new level of complexity that the people you're training are having a hard time with?

We certainly hear the rumors as we're out and about and dealing with these things. There was somebody who was promoting that we should not placard vehicles any more because it would tip off that terrorist as to which vehicle to hijack.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff came out and said, No, we want to stick with placarding.

From a practical perspective, the reward nowhere near outweighed the risk. You want to remove all placards from trucks so hazmat guys have no clue what they're responding to now, when it's on fire? What's more likely, it's going to be in involved in an accident or it's going to be hijacked by a terrorist? It's far more likely it is going to be in an accident.

At least cooler heads did prevail there.

I was talking with a gentleman at a National Safety Council meeting in Omaha a couple of months ago, and he pointed out to me there is a lot of concern from a Customs perspective about chemicals coming into the country and whether or not we need to put in some added safety measures, not just from a quality standpoint but from a terrorism standpoint.

I was a little disappointed, as the ERS coordinator, that next year's conference was going to Washington, D.C., because they had been talking about doing it in San Diego, which is a huge Customs port.

When you're in D.C., you're not far from the Baltimore tunnel that experienced a rail hazmat fire in 2001.

We kicked that around, a couple of my committee members and I. It's not ruled out yet.

The U.S. Fire Administration issued a good report about that, talking about the temperatures generated in that tunnel under downtown Baltimore. It was eye-opening, to me.

If I remember the articles that I saw, the roads were buckling from the heat.

And there was just one access point anywhere along that tunnel, except for the two ends. It was a manhole, making it very difficult to get at the fire, which is why it burned for so long and so hot.

That is the other side of the discussion of what hazmat people have to think about and worry about: Hazmat guys don't often get the luxury of the prevention side. We usually just get thrown whatever we get. You're right, it would've been better if there were more access points, but it's on fire now, and there aren't. So figure it out. Deal with it.

Is anyone changing that way of thinking and trying to install a more prevention-oriented approach? Is that even possible?

I think your readership probably is that group. Safety professionals around the country are attempting to be more proactive.

I do programs on environmental as well as safety. Over the last 10 or 20 years, when new properties are built, you see that environmental people were in the design process. Where in an old factory they've had to make do and make it work for air emissions and all the other environmental controls that are in place, for a new facility they decided, 'We should consult with these environmental people before we build it to make sure it's going to be adequate for environmental regulations.'

I think safety people fall into that same group. We used to have a problem with machine guarding: Anybody that builds a machine now knows not to have pinch points and open access points where people could get hurt. So there will be less and less call for machine guarding, because it's already been designed into the product.

There's that group of people who have a vested interest in seeing that this gets safer and safer all the time. We're trying to play devil's advocate and think about worst-case scenarios and what could go wrong, then trying to engineer [hazards] out. Hopefully, they'll put us hazmat guys out of business some day.

Not that I want your livelihood to be gone, but that would be a good thing. If you can look at any positive that 9/11 and the anthrax attacks had, it was waking up the country to what was possible. It seems to me there is a whole universe of threats we never thought of or didn't actively consider.

Absolutely. You talk about TOPOFF; I do a lot of work with hospitals. The lack of preparedness of hospital staffs to deal with the victims of these was huge. I'm not doing the holier-than-thou thing; there are certainly situations or hazards that I had not previously considered. Like I said, events change your perspective.

After 9/11, I was at a hospital in suburban Chicago. I was there on a completely unrelated training topic, but somebody asked me if I'd look at their decontamination system. I walked down there and just shook my head: It was decontamination for one person. The room was big enough to hold one victim. I looked at the person I was talking to and I said, "What happens when you get two?" And they said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Folks, there's the potential for you to have tens, even hundreds at your back door--not one--when these things happen."

Everybody in the food chain had to try to get up to speed. It's not just the hazmat guys with the equipment; it's the hospitals with the victims; it's the city planning groups dealing with how they're going to get people out of the city. . . . It's not just the hazmat guys, by any stretch.

I'll give DHS credit for instilling the thinking that everybody has to be involved, to create these protocols and to drill as you are doing. To try to get preparedness done on a national scale is an enormous task.

The ACHMM board of directors posed a question to me, and I had a reporter when we were doing the meth lab pose the same question to me: What's the value to a safety person to witness the fire department responding to a dirty bomb? Why would they need to see that?

My take on my overall responsibility and the CHMM's responsibility to the country and the communities that all of our memberships reside in is, they are the professionals. They have more knowledge on this stuff than most people do. So when the proverbial stink hits the fan, their knowledge and their skill could be a huge value if people just know that they're there.

From the conference perspective, it's nice that we're making the response community aware--the fire departments, the civil defense teams, the offices of emergency planning--we're letting them know we exist and we're a resource. If they want to use us, we consider that part of our responsibilities, to offer up our knowledge in the areas of safety and hazmat and the other things.

And it also makes our people more aware. These people come from all over the country. What I hope is that when these people get back to their hometowns, they proactively contact the office of emergency management and say, 'What does our town have in terms of plans for a hazmat incident, or whatever else?' Those areas of the country that are somewhat unprepared, we can help them get up to speed.

This Q&A appeared in the October 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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