Article Archive
Focus on Hazmat
Simulations: Exercises in futility
Vol. 27 Spring 2012

Dear to the hearts of volunteer firefighters is “drill night.” We roll out the apparatus and practice pumping water, setting ladders, hooking up and numerous other skills necessary to proper deployment and functioning at the scene of a fire. Then there is the fellowship that follow and a “good time was enjoyed by all.” This sort of training regimen was probably sufficient when we were talking about a small town or village with perhaps a single rudimentary apparatus and a dozen close knit volunteers. For good or evil, times have changed and the fire service must perforce change with them. The early dirt or gravel roads carrying an occasional vehicle have given way to a vast river of traffic flowing along at breakneck speed over broad ribbons of concrete. The railroad which once saw the daily combination train of a steam engine pulling four of five cars now accommodates multiple trains consisting of a number of snoring, grumbling diesel locomotives coupled together to pull a freight train of a hundred cars or more.

Then there is the airport; once a simple tract of pasture shared with the local farmer’s cow herd, now a metropolis in itself with a terminal containing all the comforts of a small city for the convenience of a plethora of travelers arriving and departing from all corners of the globe. “Yep, Zeb, times is changed.” In order to continue to be effective emergency services must change with them.

The first thing that must take place is a unification of effort. Emergency response is no longer a matter of separate domains for law enforcement, Fire Department, EMS, Red Cross or other social agencies and, perhaps public utilities. When the bell rings the fire Department will, of course fulfill its traditional role while law enforcement will be called upon to handle traffic control and, if needed, maintain order. EMS will render first aid and, if necessary, transport the injured to the hospital for further treatment. The Red Cross and/or other social agencies will provide for the immediate needs of any displaced persons while public utilities will ensure that water supplies are adequate and that gas and electricity are shut off to prevent further damage or injury. In short emergency response has become an all-government/community enterprise.

Such an effort requires coordination as well as integration, both in command structure and field operations. It cannot simply be a “paper tiger”; it must be an in fact organizational entity that will actually function in an emergency situation. To make sure that the emergency response operation will really perform as intended, periodic drills, simulations or other exercises are essential. When properly designed and implemented they uncover any unforeseen problems or systematic “glitches” that my not have been apparent in the original scenario. Make them evaluations and not exercises in futility or excursions to fantasy. Emphasize that these exercises are intended to uncover any shortcomings in order that these may be corrected; they are a means of testing the system and by no means are they intended to denigrate or belittle the efforts of the participating agencies or personnel.

A number of attributes are key to a simulation being an effective test of the system as well as a training instrument.

The scenario must be “real” for the local facility and jurisdiction. Focus on one of the most frequent or potentially most hazardous situation.

The exercise must be un-announced. This is the way emergencies occur, we do not have time to get ready or wait for a nice warm day; we go when the bell rings and this is rarely at a “convenient” time. Things happen when they happen and if the Chief (or other key person) is out of town or the tanker is in the shop, so be it, We go with what we have when we have it. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing; it tests the command structure and will reveal whether or not the responders can function effectively in the absence of the Chief. If it turns out that this can, then that is one thing we don’t have to worry about. If it we find out that they can’t then now is the time to fix the problem before some real incident occurs and the response effort fails due to the absence of the Chief. In one instance a department had suffered numerous incidents of vandalism in its engine house. In order to prevent further incursions the well meaning but short sighted Chief installed heavy duty lock on the door. All went well until there was an actual alarm while the Chief was out of town and it was discovered that he had the only key to the engine house; an embarrassment to say the least. An un-announced exercise will also test equipment readiness and its adequacy. If we find that there is some piece of equipment that is absolutely essential to the incident being simulated and that item is out of service then we had better look into the possibility of getting a backup unit immediately or at least creating a contingency plan. If our pumper cannot supply the required volume and/or pressure necessary to effectively operate the ladder pipe when the ladder is fully extended, then we need to know this now and make arrangements accordingly.

The incident must be plausible. We must choose a scenario that could actually take place and while it is true that “anything is possible” we need to be realistic in our planning. The idea that some precautious student will put together a “dirty” bomb in the High School chemistry lab is, after all, rather “far fetched” but the possibility that this same student could cause an explosion by mixing sodium and water or creating a toxic atmosphere by bring copper into contact with nitric acid is very real indeed. Two factors that should be considered are the likelihood of an event and the consequences of such an event if it did actually occur.

The exercise needs to be all-inclusive. All emergency services agencies should be included not just the facility’s emergency responders and local fire department.

While full-scale exercises are nice and are valuable for training and testing purposes not all of them need to be actual simulations. A lot can be learned from a well presented table top exercise or a telephone conference. By using these techniques scenarios can be run more frequently and with more variety without doing undue violence to the budget.

Now just how do we go about setting up exercises that will meet all of the foregoing criteria. In the first place a successful exercise will require thought—quite a lot of thought. One of the most effective methods involves an “exercise committee”. This is a person or a group of people either employees or an outside consultant who will set up the exercise. They have absolutely no contact with those who will be participating in the event. These people should be the devious ones in the organization; those who can be counted on to think outside the box.

These people can cruise about within the facility or community and spot a location for an “ideal” incident. This will be an actual location in the facility or community and the incident will be one that could actually happen. It should also be one that is plausible; a vapor release, a traffic accident, a derailment, an in-plant explosion all of these are great if there is actually such a potential incident in the facility that would impact the neighborhood. The possibility for an incident caused by terrorist activities should not be overlooked; after all we have to deal with any particular incident regardless of its genesis. A response to an incident caused by terrorist activity is no different from one initiated by any other cause. When the World Trade Center towers were struck by airliners in 2001 the New York Fire Department was confronted with nothing more, or less, than a building collapse; a collapse of colossal proportions to be sure but a building collapse incident none the less and it was handled accordingly. It would have made no difference whether the airliners were purposely directed to the towers or thrown off course because of some equipment failure or sudden medical problems with the flight crew in the cockpit. If the planes struck the towers the result would have been the same regardless of how or why the collision occurred, so far as the NYFD was concerned.

Regardless of the genesis of our simulated incident the author of the exercise should prepare a very detailed script of the incident spelling out exactly what happened and what will happen as the incident progresses. Such a script might begin as follows:

“At 1340 hours on Sunday MM DD 20XX a tractor trailer rig loaded with propane lost its air brakes while descending Steep-hill pass and crashed into a north bound freight train occupying the crossing of highway YY and the flat-wheel railroad. The train was moving at 19 mph according to the engineer and later verified by the train’s event recorder. Eight cars were derailed, three box cars containing general merchandise, two flatcars carrying chemical totes bearing the UN numbers 1381 and three tank cars; one with the with UN number 1017 one with the UN number 1832. The third tank car was positioned so that the placard number could not be read. Since it had been picked up at a siding en-route, it was not listed on the “consist” carried by the train crew. The wind was blowing at 27MPH from the south (parallel to the tracks) and the air temperature was 87ºF. Shortly after the collision fire broke out in the wreckage of the flat cars. The Pottsville Volunteer Fire Department responded with a 1200gpm pumper, a ladder truck and a Haz Mat team. A request for assistance under the tri-county mutual aid agreement was transmitted to the Bacongrease Chemical Co. at 1401 hours. The company responded with a foam truck and 500 gallons of foam concentrate.

The shipping papers obtained from the train crew listed the tank car placarded UN1017 as being a U.S. military shipment identified as “ Bertholite”.

This script would go on for quite a number of pages and would be used by the exercise coordinator to feed small bits of information to the responders as appropriate. It allows the coordinator to vary the incident and to “spice up the action” by inserting such things as a sudden power failure, do to the derailment knocking down one or more power poles along the railroad right-of-way, which took Central Dispatch off the air.

This type of exercise can be run in a number of ways: It can, of course, be run as a full scale simulation; it can be run as a “table-top” or it can be run as a “teleconference” with all of the participants connected by telephone. In any case it should not be announced. The telephone should ring with the message that an exercise is in progress and those involved should report at once (this could mean that personnel go to the site of the exercise or that they simply respond by telephone). This is the way incidents happen and when the bell rings we drop everything an answer the call.

Training exercises should be viewed as exactly what they are: tests. We have two objectives in mind, both of which are important. The first, of course is to refresh and improve the operational skills of our response personnel and familiarize them with any newly introduced equipment and/or techniques. The second is to test our system to ferret out any “glitches” so that we can address them before they engender a disaster. By no means should a simulation become an exercise in finger-pointing or fault-finding. It should never be interpreted by personnel as an effort to “catch them out.” It is simply an attempt to make certain that everything works as intended. If the couplings on the chemical company’s truck don’t mate with those on the city hose or with the local hydrants, now is the time to find it out. If the sheriff’s deputies cannot talk to the City Police or the Fire Department this is the time and place to learn about the apparent disconnect. If there is a problem with the unified command system and a conflict exists between the railroad (or other agency) and local response agencies (as has happened on numerous occasions) this is the time to straighten it out and ensure sincere cooperation between entities during an actual emergency. The question of who is in charge should be settled long before the bell rings, and if it is things will go a lot smoother.

“After the ball is over” what happened and what did we learn? What were the “take home lessons”? They may be more numerous than we would like to think about. What went well and where were the “glitches”? An in-depth analysis of what went wrong and right is the basis for updating emergency response plans.

Things that might come up are items like the derailed train blocking the only crossing for a mile or more along the right-of-way make it difficult to get response equipment to the scene. The state Highway Dept. crews were not available to close the road. The railroad trainmaster who tried to assume command had to be escorted from the scene. Finally, emergency response personnel did not have a basic understanding of the chemistry of the materials involved.

According to the placard on the tanks in our simulation, the product in the chemical totes was elemental phosphorous (white or yellow phosphorous) and this element will ignite spontaneously when allowed to come into contact with oxygen in the air. The best way to control a phosphorous fire is to simply submerge the burning material in water. This will cut off the oxygen and extinguish the fire. Now at this point it is important to make sure that the responders are absolutely certain about the identity of the material in question. Phosphorous and metallic sodium are both shipped in totes and tank cars, usually under a liquid. Both of them will burn though phosphorous gives off a great deal of dense white smoke, when compared to sodium. This smoke is composed of phosphorous pentoxide (P2O5). Elemental phosphorous is shipped under WATER and sodium is shipped under OIL (usually kerosene or diesel fuel).

Water should never be applied to sodium or sodium fires since the element reacts violently with water. Care should be taken when applying water to phosphorous also since any P4O10 present will be hygroscopic and therefore will react exothermically with water to produce highly corrosive phosphoric acid.  If water is to be applied to burning phosphorous it should be in flooding quantities so that the burning material can be immediately cooled and sealed off from atmospheric oxygen. Any phosphoric acid formed will be greatly diluted. This illustrates why it is imperative that operative personnel be familiar with the “Street Chemistry” of the materials encountered in an incident. It is also nice to for them to know just how these materials will react when involved in an incident wherein the container is breached and a number of chemicals are released together.

The tank car carrying lading listed as “Bertholite” actually contains elemental chlorine. Since Chlorine was once used as a war gas and is still listed in the armamentarium it is often referred to by its military name by the armed services. 

Such scenarios are not confined to chemical transportation incidents; they can be found in almost any situation. The last renovation of the pavement make it impossible for our new ladder truck to go through the railroad underpass on south Seventh Street. If that should be the case then we are better off finding out about it now, in a simulation, rather than during an actual emergency.

The more detailed a simulation is, the more it can teach us about ourselves provided that the information embedded is consistent with what actually exists at our situation. To quote an old computer wizard’s adage, “garbage in – garbage out.” It is of little or no value to repeat an exercise in a Mississippi plant that was written for a Beaumont, TX plant. Obviously, if the maximum benefit from an exercise is to be obtained a great deal of thought and planning must go into its creation.

It is possible, of course, to tailor an exercise to test a particular part of the emergency response capability. For example, one could initiate an exercise in which the normal water supply failed in order to test the ERT’s ability to mount a tanker operation and the Utilities Department’s ability to deploy emergency measures. Another possibility would be to simulate a power failure in the Central Dispatch office. The list is long and limited only by the imagination of the author of the exercise. One thing is certain, if we can conceive it, it can, and probably will happen at some point. After all no emergency is, by definition, ever expected; and the only place that one can find a “text book case” is, where else, in a textbook. The exception is “Disasters Man-Made,” a book written by the IFW team of David White and Anton Riecher that compiles a host of industrial emergencies that were anything but textbook examples. A well planned and executed series of locale based exercises, simulations and onsite drills implemented as part of a comprehensive training program will do much to ensure the readiness of the emergency responders and the capability of the emergency response organization, governmental or private sector. The amount of “locale specificity” coupled with the inclusion of unknown and unexpected factors will differentiate between an exercise which simply follows a prepared script in which the content is pre-ordained and the outcome is assured. This is an exercise in futility. While one which requires creative solutions to unexpected problems by those on the scene, and tests the actual ability of the local response organization to deal with any similar situation which might, in future, arise will expose weaknesses and highlight strengths resulting in a better and more competent organization. It will allow an opportunity to correct shortcomings, incorporate additional capabilities and inspire confidence in or ability to perform in an adequate manner. 


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