Time plus distance equals the formula school bus drivers are taught should they come upon a truck leaking hazardous materials. It is the school bus driver's job above all to keep the vehicle's precious cargo safe. That means getting the bus uphill, upwind and away from the hazard as quickly as possible.
Law enforcement officers lack this luxury.
There to "protect and serve," these guardians of justice must drive their vehicles into the mix and brace whatever chemical hazards they find. They must remain on site until they safely evacuate the area and hazmat teams finish cleaning up the spill.
But in a toxic materials release, the chemicals are most hazardous when they are discharged into the air, onto the ground or into a nearby water stream.
While responding officers assess the nature and extent of the spill, call for back up, establish incident boundaries, and begin traffic and crowd control procedures, they also must protect themselves from toxins in the air and on the ground. It's critical those on the frontline safeguard their own health and safety as well as that of any civilians in the area.
There were more than 13,000 transportation-related hazmat accidents in 2006 - 85 percent of which occurred on the nation's highways or railways. However, there are many other places an officer might encounter a hazmat event and potentially be exposed to a toxic chemical.
In June 2005, a fire started at a compressed gas company in a St. Louis, Missouri, suburb. The resulting explosions sent large compressed gas cylinders more than 100 feet into the air, releasing sizeable amounts of burning gases. Neighborhoods were evacuated and roads closed including an interstate highway at the height of the blaze. In another case in November 2006, a small solvent and ink manufacturing plant in a quiet residential neighborhood in Danvers, Massachusetts, erupted in an explosion that witnesses likened to a 2,000-pound bomb. Police and firefighters were faced with a raging fire of unknown origin and the potential for toxic chemical release. The fire was elevated to 6+ alarms before being brought under control. In the end more than 90 homes and buildings in the area were damaged, a number of individuals injured and the entire plant destroyed.
For this reason, protecting officers and the community at large, in a hazmat situation, begins with surveying these types of businesses and other vulnerable areas before an incident occurs.
Many companies produce or use chemicals in the course of doing business. Gas stations, printing companies, hardware stores, oil storage and distributors, compressed gas companies, small specialty chemical manufacturers, etc. all present the potential for a hazardous event that law enforcement may be called to.
Highways and railways running through a community must be considered as well. While an overturned truck is a relatively small incident, a derailed train presents a much larger hazmat problem. Tanker cars on trains routinely haul toxic chemicals such as chlorine, anhydrous ammonia, aniline, cyclohexane and butyl acetate. When these tankers crash, they emit a cloud of toxic gas into the environment. Police are then charged with overseeing the evacuation of people in the area. In that process the officer must constantly observe his surroundings to ensure he does not get trapped in the advancing toxic cloud that can suddenly change direction due to wind shifts or subsequent explosions.
In a full-blown hazmat incident, the site is divided into three zones: hot, warm or cold. Officers may enter the cold zone but must have appropriate protective gear and training to enter warm or hot zones. It is imperative officers fully understand the procedures involved in establishing an incident command center, designating an incident commander and following chain of command.