Officers face many threats – suspects with guns, being struck by motorists while on traffic stops, and dangerous pursuits. But day to day while navigating the myriad of potential dangers somewhere in the back of their minds they need to know the impact and the risk of being exposed to hazardous materials.
Even something like responding to a traffic accident can prove harmful, or deadly, to an officer who fails to maintain awareness of such possible threats.
At the Mississippi Delta Community College Law Enforcement Training Academy, which is accredited by the Mississippi Board on Law Enforcement Officers’ Standards and Training to offer all levels of training, hazardous materials and the dangers are taught to recruits by someone with decades of fire department experience. What he teaches in the Hazardous Materials for Law Enforcement course, can save lives.
Jim Whitfield, a retired Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) emergency response coordinator and current Sunflower County deputy fire coordinator, is drawing on his years of training and experiences to teach police officers. He is also a hazardous material technician, a radiation hazmat specialist, and a nationally registered EMT.
The veteran first responder is still impacted by what he learned from the teachings of Gordon Graham, a well-respected consultant and law enforcement veteran from California, in terms of “high risk, low frequency” incidents. Police officers, firefighters, or any first responders grow accustomed to the routine of their jobs and develop their respective skillsets. But there are times when they are faced with something they have never seen and only have their normal skillset to fall back on.
“When you're trying to take all of your experience and project onto that scene, that incident, and trying to make sense out of it, that is when you really need to just stop what you're doing and totally reevaluate. That's that high risk and low frequency stuff we don't do very often,” he explains. “And if we don't do it right, and get it right the first time, the risk is extremely high for everybody involved.”
Hazardous materials exist nearly everywhere humans do, he points out. They are found in every home. While household quantities are low and may seem innocuous, go look at some of the labels then magnify that to a larger scale for commercial business, transportation, and industry. Law enforcement officers will encounter hazardous materials in their routine work, he points out.
“The goal of this type of training is to show officers that hazmat isn't limited to a rare incident involving exotic substances,” says Whitfield.
Awareness-level training teaches officers how to recognize and identify hazardous materials whether in transit or at fixed facilities or even illicit hazardous material use, how to establish initial safety perimeters, and to understand the average patrol officer doesn't have the personal protective equipment to mount a hands-on response.
Whitfield says law enforcement is not as necessarily in tune with hazardous materials response as firefighters may be. It’s just the nature of the two different professions and where their skills are focused, he explains as he says that is in no way a slam against police officers.
Officers need to keep in mind potential threats and realize certain hazards need specialized responses.
“Just step back and say, ‘this is out of my ballpark.’ Don't rush in, don't get overzealous, don't think you can jump out and do it when you can't,” he says.
Some threats, such as an overturned tanker truck or damaged and leaking chemical barrels, may be obvious. But for a patrol officer, hazardous materials could be lurking just ahead in less apparent ways.
The key is awareness.
“As far as normal traffic stops there's probably not going to be hazardous materials to worry about. But, if you approach a situation and something's not right like if there are four people in the car and they're all passed out. Why?” asks Whitfield as he shares that scenario as an example. “Don’t go open doors and windows; don't try to be a hero. What if they stole some chemicals for their latest meth cook or something like that and it got out in the car. It could create a health issue for the officer. So just take time and evaluate the situation.”
Officers, who often arrive on accident scenes and run forward to rescue occupants from burning vehicles, need to be aware that even the gases released when a car burns can be hazardous. In the fire service, several decades ago firefighters learned of the increased dangers when more and more synthetics were used in the production of household products and furniture as well as vehicles.
First responders have an ingrained desire to serve and protect and run toward dangers while others run away. However, sometimes there is need for a pause.
“Part of that wiring makes us feel like we got to do it, and do it right now. For hazardous materials, that's not the case,” says Whitfield. “Take your time. No pun intended, take a breath of fresh air, reevaluate your priorities and then go from there.”
For the course, Whitfield teaches cops to be awareness-level responders. They are expected to:
- Recognize the presence of hazardous materials
- Protect themselves and others
- Request appropriately trained personnel
- Secure the area
Once on scene at a possible hazmat incident, first an officer must recognize that it may be a hazardous materials incident or location and know how to interpret information from placards, labels, container shapes and sizes, etc., to determine defensive operations such as setting up isolation zones and downwind protection considerations.
One tool any first responder, including patrol officers, can have at their disposal is the app for the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). The U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has for years produced a printed form of the ERG. Now, the same resources are available as a free app for both Android and Apple phones.
The ERG, in printed or app form, is the go-to manual to help deal with hazmat transportation accidents during the critical first 30 minutes. Primarily, it can help an officer properly identify the materials and hazards involved by referencing the placard number.
Once the material is identified by number, the app will walk a first responder through decision making and detail any health risks, fire or explosion risks, protective clothing needs, and evacuation measures. All information is at an officer’s fingertips.
“The ERG is published in book form every four years. Apps make it easier to stay updated as things change,” says Whitfield. “Additionally, the app can perform some rudimentary mapping to assist officers in visualizing isolation zones and downwind protection areas.”
In possible incidents an officer may respond to at a facility, different markings are posted than those used for transportation.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704 Diamond conveys relative hazard but does not specifically identify the substance.
The diamond is broken into four colored quadrants with blue relating to health risk, red to flammability, yellow to reactivity, and white referencing special instructions such as the substance is alkaline, acidic, corrosive, oxidizing, or radioactive. Within each quadrant is a number on a scale of 0 to 4, with the higher the number the greater the risk.
“Law enforcement officers simply will encounter hazardous materials in their routine work,” explains Whitfield. “Thankfully in the vast, vast majority of situations there is no cause for concern because the regulatory requirements on hazmat result in safe movement and handling.”