Do responders know enough chemistry to do their jobs?

March 17, 2004
Homeland Response interviews Barry Lindley about street smart chemistry.

Do first responders and even Hazmat team members know enough chemistry to do their jobs effectively? "Not at all," says DuPont Co. senior emergency response specialist Barry N. Lindley.

Lindley is in a good position to know. He helped establish DuPont Safety Resources' Emergency Response Solutions practice, which has trained more than 83,000 people in 860 cities and 20 countries. His students have come from big cities and small towns, DuPont's 100 plant sites and other industrial facilities, as well as the FBI and CIA.

Lindley also teaches at the West Virginia University Fire School and Delaware State Fire School. With DuPont chemist Wayne C. Appleton, he wrote Street Smart Chemistry, a guide to chemical and weapons of mass destruction emergency response.

Although Lindley sees critical knowledge gaps, he believes responders can learn enough to make a difference in the field.

Homeland Response: Does every responder need to know chemistry?

Lindley: All responders need some level of training. At the very least, they need to know how to use PPE [personal protective equipment], manage an incident, and use the incident command system.

They should also know some common chemical and toxicology terms, how to read a MSDS [Material Safety Data Sheet], how to use the hazardous chemical guidebooks they're issued, and who to call for help in an emergency.

HR: What about members of hazmat chemical terrorism teams? Do they know enough chemistry?

Lindley: Those that come to our classes often lack basic knowledge of chemicals, chemical reactions, and how to research chemicals.

Everyone should know how to identify a chemical from its label, take a name off a truck, MSDS or bill of lading, and look it up in an emergency guidebook.

While they know how to do various types of mitigation, they still sometimes need to call someone to tell them what to do about chemical reactions and unknown situations. We want them to understand the chemistry involved. For example, if they need to monitor the air for methyl alcohol, they may only have a colorimetric tube to identify ethyl alcohol. They should know that they could use that tube to detect methyl, isopropyl, or other alcohols because they all react similarly. They may not get the most accurate measurement, but it will be in the ballpark. If I didn't know something about alcohols, I wouldn't even think about measuring for those other two materials with that tube.

We also try to teach how different classes of chemicals react. For example, acids and bases neutralize each other and form salts. This releases a lot of heat. This can cause splatters and create a larger fume cloud. Another example is oxidizers, which react with most organic materials to generate heat, light and sound. Responders should be able to estimate if the oxidizer is strong enough to react violently, and if shock or friction could set it off.

HR: What about research?

Lindley: Responders should know how to look up an MSDS or use EPA's CAMEO program to get hazardous chemical information and model plumes.

Many times, responders know how to find information but don't know what to do with it. For example, I look up four materials and they're all alkanes. One has a toxicity of 100 and the others are not listed. If they all share similar structures, boiling points and vapor pressures, do I assume they're equally dangerous? Our course gives them enough knowledge to see that all these things are all interrelated.

HR: This sounds like a lot of information to pack into classes that only last three to five days. Do responders really learn it all?

Lindley: Most of the folks who come to our class haven't even had chemistry in high school, but they recognize the need to know about chemicals. The class is at a level that everybody can understand.

Our focus is not so much on specific chemicals as on the relationships between them. There are only a limited number of families, such as corrosives, oxidizers, water and air-reactive chemicals, inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals, pesticides, and weapons of mass destruction. We focus on family properties and how they apply to commonly shipped chemicals in everyday use. That limits the amount of information we cover.

HR: It's still a lot of ground to cover. How do you do it?

Lindley: They'll go to sleep if someone lectures about chemistry, so we use a lot of videos, show chemical reactions and explosions, and try to focus on what's practical and important.

We show what went wrong in the past. One example is an ammonium nitrate explosion that killed almost 500 people in Texas City in the 1940s. The fire took place aboard a ship. When water failed to extinguish it, the ship's captain turn on the steam smothering fire protection system and buttoned up the hatches. That kept heat from escaping and caused the ammonium nitrate to explode. Today's responder would have known to vent and cool down with massive water streams. We run through pictures and videos of 30 to 50 incidents like this in three days.

We also talk about incident responses that have gone right and why. At DuPont, we respond to train derailments, major leaks, warehouse fires and runaway chemical reactions, and about 80 percent are potentially critical. We bring these examples back, show our workshop participants how we used our understanding of chemical reactions to solve them, then let them tabletop some scenarios on their own.

HR: What about weapons of mass destruction (WMD)?

Lindley: We teach more than classical chemical warfare agents. We talk about how industrial chemicals can be used as weapons. We focus on clues that might tell responders what's in a tank car where all the names and placards have been removed. For example, they can look at tank car construction and see if it's cryogenic or pressurized, then relate that to chemical families. That lets them narrow it down to a dozen different chemicals rather than a thousand. At that point, they'll have to do some research, narrow it down further and put an action plan together.

HR: Are your classes certified in any way?

Lindley: Our classes meet NFPA 472 standards. They're also accredited by the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications and given in partnership with the Delaware State Fire School. The training is very rigorous and we have high standards.

HR: Do your students retain what they learn?

Lindley: DuPont's volunteer response teams receive 48 hours of training per year. That includes 24 hours of classroom training and 24 hours of on-site training, such as putting on PPE and SCBAs and practicing with capping kits and other repair techniques. We also hold drills to practice a particular technique, in addition to actual responses. Every third year, we provide 72 hours of training.

That works for responders too. They should practice with the tools they were originally trained with. Do the tabletop exercises. Get the chemical books out.

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