Increased liability, limited training, environmental impact and a lack of an emergency plan, means that spill response is not as straightforward as it once might have been.
There are response companies that are specific about the type of chemicals and the volume capacity they will respond to, while others offer unrestricted services. Some response companies will only respond to hydrocarbons or compressed gases and others will offer response services to virtually any and all incidents involving chemicals and hazardous materials including chemical, biological radiological, nuclear and exposure (CBRNE) situations — although the latter opportunity seems few and far between — further blurring the lines for many manufacturing facilities.
The days of acquiring the necessary skills to don a self contained breathing apparatus and safely and efficiently work in a fully encapsulated Level A suit are long gone. One now must be more skilled and equipped to deal with the unknowns and the possibility of criminal intent. The ageing workforce and increased liability is steering corporations away from internal response that can increase costs and unnecessary environmental impairment.
Life after 9/11 was something of a wake-up call for many politicians and community leaders who realized how ill-prepared municipal agencies were for emergency situations. Prior to 9/11, structural fires, auto extrication and the odd “cat in the tree” incidents were what municipal fire services were most often responding to. These days, it’s letter bombs, white powder incidents and Anthrax calls, in addition to a host of perceived CBRNE issues.
A recent study conducted by TEAM- 1 Emergency Services showed that upwards of 72 per cent of Ontario fire departments do not have Hazardous Materials (HazMat) response capabilities or Confined Space Rescue protocol or equipment.
Perception and assumptions are the biggest misconception in the spill response industry. The perceived competitor for a private responder is the local fire department. Essentially what is occurring is that manufacturing facilities assume that a call to 9-1-1 will alleviate all immediate emergency issues — including a malicious chemical spill. When a caller mentions the word chemical or HazMat to the 9-1-1 dispatcher receiving the emergency call, it will trigger a response that would look great in a movie. A vast array of fire trucks, command posts, police and EMS will show up at the facility. With good reason, the owner/operator will lose control of the operation and the fire department, instantly assuming command of the situation, could shut the operation down depending on the incident.
If the operation happens to be in an area that is serviced by a fire department equipped with a HazMat Response Team, upwards of 50 fire fighters will arrive at the site. Upon completing an entry into the site, the fire department will inform the owner there is a spill or a chemical reaction.
If the area is not serviced by a HazMat trained and outfitted fire department, they will meet the owner/operator at the front gate, ask for the emergency response plan and anxiously await for information on the owner/operator’s next step. The person who has care and control of the material assumes that 9-1-1 is the best way to handle an emergency occurrence, when, in fact, this might not be the best course of action in a spill situation. (N. B. In writing this article we fully respect the fire service and would never advise on circumnavigating the response of the fire service to the incident.)
After 9/11, the federal and provincial governments allocated additional funding and disbursement of these funds began flying around. CBRNE teams were set up all throughout Ontario; trailers were set up with equipment and volunteer fire fighters received some training on biological agents; hospitals received $13.5 million for decontamination tents and other equipment to set up in the event of a CBRNE attack. This forced private response firms make some decisions: To stick with the broom, shovel and bag of kitty litter or run with the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment that is needed to respond appropriately to an spill site.
Even with the police and fire services being somewhat better equipped, it is still the private response firms that will inevitably mitigate the incident. Police and fire are only there for investigative and public safety issues. In fact, there are several municipal fire departments that have contracted private response companies to offer HazMat support during a spill situation.
An emergency response plan is key
The ageing workforce and sheer liability of putting industrial facility workers into unknown situations is one of the biggest hindrances in HazMat Response. While internal training for spill and fire brigades is extensively promoted with a company, it often sets up for a dreary situation.
Take Ralph, for instance: He is 48 years old and his employer annually provides self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) training to him and his fellow ERT members annually. Ralph makes widgets on a daily basis and, as such, is not really in tune with what is going to be required of him when the tank of cyanide in his work station hits the floor.
However, providing training on the best course of action to take in the event of a cyanide spill — including who to call — is a start to avoiding the dreary end.
The insurance industry can easily take the lead and encourage and/or direct their clients to have provisions put in place that would minimize an incident. Both fixed facilities and the transportation industry should be subject to this. Although the fire marshals office, the Ministry of Environment and other regulatory bodies put legislation in place, it’s the insurance companies that can really apply pressure. Liability is huge in the environmental industry and the author cautions certain directives.
The intent is to trigger an interest in assessing the needs of a client’s operation and ensuring they are fully prepared for a vast array of requirements and responsibilities that may occur during an emergency.
Mandatory conditions, such as the insured’s requirement to partake in training, along with an active emergency or spill plan, will benefit all those concerned. Not only training the internal workforce, but better equipping them to provide initial containment will save money and reduce liability for all parties.
Unfortunately, because fixed facilities rarely report or claim a spill, through insurance, many insurers are unaware of the number of spills occurring in Ontario alone. One can only have so many discharges before the contaminant migrates off-site causing adverse affects to the natural environment.
Pre-plan, train and enlist the assistance of a (qualified) private contractor for out of scope incidents and the exposure in the event of a mishap will be reduced.
Mitchell Gibbs is the Manager of Emergency Services for TEAM-1 Environmental Services. His team provides Emergency Support Services to Police and Fire departments, providing rapid response to critical situations.