Article Archive
Focus on Hazmat
Vol 21 No 6

"There will be change and you won't like it." This was the theme of the Bishop's Address at our United Methodist Annual Conference session this year; our Bishop was alluding to upcoming change within the church and the fact that, however necessary it is, innovation will meet with opposition. Innovation: "the act of innovating, the introduction of new things, ideas or methods" equals change; the one constant in human existence. This is true of both technology and theology.

It is axiomatic among ecologists that "everything is connected to everything else," therefore, a change in any factor within a system will perforce induce an equivalent change in all other factors within that system. This is also true of the fire/emergency response service.

Innovation has been a fact of life in the fire service from its inception in Roman times until the present day, especially within the volunteer ranks. The members of the early bucket brigades resisted the introduction of the first "squirts" and tub pumps because it was thought that these new innovations wasted the water that those who manned the buckets had labored so hard to obtain. The introduction of wheeled vehicles with equipment stored in central locations met resistance from those who had been accustomed to grabbing their own bucket and running directly to the fire from their homes; they didn't like to have to run the extra distance. The introduction of the steam fire pump met resistance from those who manned the "goose-neck" pumps and who feared that the steamers with their need for constant oversight would lead to paid departments and the demise of their beloved volunteer organizations. The advent of the internal combustion engine met resistance from those who loved their horses and who depended on those willing beasts to get their equipment to the scene as rapidly as possible. They had little faith in that new, noisy and oftentimes temperamental contraption called the "autymobile" when old Dobbin, Jane and Spike had been so reliable and willing and sometimes knew the district better than did the firefighters. Nonetheless, there was change and many of those it affected directly did, indeed, not like it.

"Everything is connected to everything else." Innovation in the fire service is often the result of an effort to cope with a need engendered by a new innovation in another field. Hydrofluoric acid is a case in point.

The advent of the high compression automobile engine by Walter Chrysler in the years after World War I created the need for gasolines with a higher octane rating than was economically obtainable by the "straight run" distillation techniques then used to refine petroleum. To increase the octane rating so that high compression engines would run without premature ignition or "pinging," refiners added tetraethyl lead, (Pb-(CH3)4) to regular gasoline to obtain a premium grade of fuel known as "Ethyl." This leaded gasoline worked very well except for the fact that the lead wound up in the exhaust stream and, as the number of vehicles increased, this became a matter of environmental concern. The obvious answer to this problem was to find a way to make gasoline with an octane rating high enough to run in high compression engines without using the poisonous lead compounds which were fouling the air.

Two processes were developed, the more prevalent one employed hydrofluoric acid (an aqueous solution of the gas hydrogen fluoride, HF) or anhydrous hydrogen fluoride (HF) itself, while the less common one employed anhydrous pyrosulfuric acid (H2S2O7) otherwise known as oleum. While either one of these compounds is extremely reactive and dangerous to handle, our present interest is in hydrofluoric acid.

When I was in high school, more years ago now than I like to think about, we were given virtually no information about hydrofluoric acid other than the fact that it did exist as the first member of the "hydrohalic" acid series and that, because of its extreme reactivity and corrosive properties, there was little or no commercial use for the compound. When I got to college, we actually had a very small paraffin coated bottle holding about 5 ml of the substance and we were allowed to look at this malevolent material but only from a distance. We were told that hydrogen fluoride did have at least one use, it was sometimes employed to etch glass but that in this case the HF was generated "in situ by reacting calcium fluoride with a strong acid, usually sulfuric in a double decomposition reaction or metathesis (CaF2 + H2SO4 6 CaSO4 + 2HF8). This was demonstrated by scratching our initials on a piece of paraffin coated glass and then placing it over a lead dish containing the reaction mixture of CaF and H2SO4. After a period of time the wax was removed and the initials were seen to be firmly etched in the glass.

Today, because of its widespread use in the manufacture of lead-free gasolines, plastics, electronics, the separation of uranium isotopes in the preparation of nuclear fuel, and some rather exotic space age materials hydrofluoric acid is a common article of commerce. It travels up and down our highways in specially configured tank trailers and on a recent trip into the Permian Basin area of west Texas I noted a rail siding containing a cut of eight tank cars specifically labeled to contain this substance, a far cry from that little paraffin bottle of fifty-plus years ago.

The need to produce lead-free gasoline, itself a change, initiated chain reaction of innovations in venues apart from that of petroleum refining. The process used to produce the needed motor fuel created the need for large quantities of hydrofluoric acid. This lead in turn to sweeping innovations in plant construction and steam fitting techniques in order to create facilities and equipment capable of safely producing, transporting and using the compound in the requisite quantities. New materials that would withstand the corrosive effects of hydrofluoric acid had to be formulated and fabrication techniques appropriate to these materials developed. New protocols for shipping, handling, storage and utilization of the material had to be promulgated. Fittings had to be devised and thread sizes and patterns standardized. Safety regulations had to be developed and workers trained; the list goes on and on. Every facet of industry that would come in contact with hydrofluoric acid or a product that involved the chemical in its production was subject to innovation and the personnel effected had to be trained in the appropriate protocols for safe handling and utilization of this material. Since there had previously been no large scale utilization of the compound there were no field appropriate methods available for detecting leaks of HF. These had to be developed and deployed before large scale production and utilization of the chemical could proceed. Since there had been no wide spread deployment of HF there had been few, if any cases of humans being poisoned or seriously injured by the product. How does one treat a case of HF poisoning? What parenteral therapy is appropriate? No one in the general medical population knew; most practitioners had never seen a case. Most of what was extrapolated from the techniques used to treat other poisons was found to be of little or no practical value. New therapeutic agents had to be developed and produced and the medical community had to be trained in their use.

This one switch from leaded to unleaded gasoline impacted nearly every facet of the industrial universe in general and the emergency responders in particular. What happens when we have a leak involving HF? What protective gear is required? How do we detect the presence of HF? Answers for all these questions and a host of others were needed in order that emergency response crews could deal effectively and safely with HF emergencies. When they came, the answers were innovative, that is, they produced change; and those who were impacted by this change didn't always like it. The "rules of engagement" for fires involving HF were changed radically and some of those changes did in fact go down hard with the traditionally oriented firefighters. The fact that one could not simply hook up a fog nozzle and go behind it headlong into an incident to achieve a rescue was, and sometimes still is, hard to accept but it is true. At the same time there are going to be instances in which rescue simply is not possible. There are going to be more instances where the best course of action is simply to effect any possible rescue and then stand back, protect any exposures and let the fire burn out. This flies in the face of fire service tradition but none the less it is sometimes the most effective action in terms of life endangerment as well as long term environmental damage and debris disposal after the fact. We don't like it but we are, in many cases, going to have to live with it.

The scenario of change that has been outlined for hydrogen fluoride/ hydrofluoric acid has been repeated many times in the world of commerce and industry as newly discovered chemicals and materials are developed and introduced into the stream of general trade. The electronics industry has been the source of many such introductions as a result of the manufacture of computer chips. The aerospace industry has added its share of new and exotic space age fuels and materials into the stream of everyday commerce and the emergency response community has had to become prepared to deal with all of them at least to the extent of getting effected populations out of harm's way, protecting exposed property and "holding the line" until specialists can arrive on the scene. To say that this has produced change in the way we do things in small town mid-America is indeed an understatement.

Innovation means change, we probably won't like it but it will happen. We can resist it and become stagnant in our theory and our practice, lagging further and further behind the rest of the world until we are nothing more than a forgotten anachronism; or we can embrace it, evaluate it, adapt it to meet the needs of our changing environment and emerge as leaders in the field. The train of innovative change and technological progress is leaving the station. We must choose: will we be the locomotive or simply the caboose? Will we be the response agency of choice or the one of last resort? Will we set the pace or simply struggle to keep up with it? The choice is ours. o


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