Fire Chiefs: Survey Shows Hazmat Placards are Necessary

March 10, 2005
Many fire chiefs in the United States consider hazardous materials placards to be critical to their emergency response, according to a survey conducted by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Ninety-eight percent of fire chiefs responding to the survey said they consider the placards to be essential, according to the Fairfax, Va.-based professional association, which has more than 12,000 members.

The professional organization sent the survey to 7,340 members to determine the fire service's reliance on placards, which are signs on containers carrying hazardous materials that tell first responders what substances are inside.

Among the key findings of the survey:

  • Nearly every respondent replied that hazardous materials placards are critical or very important to their operations, with 70 percent responding "critical" and 28 percent responding "very important."
  • Virtually no respondents indicated that placards are not very important or not a factor at all in their operations.
  • Only 12 percent of respondents said they are aware of even potential alternatives to placards.

The removal of hazardous materials placards from railcars and other containers continues to be a topic of discussion among homeland security officials. The International Association of Fire Chiefs opposes the termination of the current placarding system until a replacement system has been demonstrated to be effective and the fire service has been trained fully in its use.

"The IAFC's survey underscores the importance of these placards to effective response," said International Association of Fire Chiefs President Chief Bob DiPoli. "Without them, America's first responders would have no idea what kinds of substances they are dealing with, posing a tremendous danger to America's communities and to the responders that protect them."

Many respondents also said that responses would take longer and costs would increase because they would have to treat every hazmat incident as a worst-case scenario.

"Placards are placed [on containers] because there is a need. Without them, calls will be extended while research is done to identify the contents, costing more money and risking more lives," one respondent wrote.

Removing placards, another respondent wrote, "would cause us to change how we evaluate risk in the early stages of response. This would cause delays in protecting people, property and the environment. It may also lead to very costly incident actions, such as an evacuation that was not needed."

First responders use placards to determine the type and level of response to hazardous materials incidents. The type of material in the incident dictates the size of the evacuation zone, the level of personal protective equipment, the need for additional or specialized personnel and more. Hazardous materials incidents occur all over the country, in rural areas and large metropolitan cities. Recent incidents occurred in Industry, Calif. (March 8), Salt Lake City (March 6) and Graniteville, S.C. (Jan. 6).

The survey was sent electronically to 7,340 fire chiefs and officers. As of March 9, 988 individuals selected to respond for a response rate of 13 percent. A private, third-party vendor hosted the questionnaire and provided tabulation of results plus the capture of text responses to the "comment" questions on the survey.

The intent of the survey was not to obtain data for statistical or scientific purposes. Rather, the intent was to obtain a snapshot of the fire service's reliance on hazmat placards.

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