Hazardous Materials and the Fire Community

In 1990, the U.S. fire service responded to over 200,000 hazardous materials incidents. During the 1980's, many fire departments began developing hazardous materials response capabilities. Although hazardous materials incidents account for only one to two percent of total responses, they are rarely simple or straightforward operations and a significant amount of planning, training and equipment are involved in developing and maintaining a hazardous materials team. A recent example of this was the train derailment that took place near Duluth, MN in June 1992. An estimated 50,000 people fled their homes as a result of the event. The derailment led to a toxic cloud estimated at 20 miles long that affected the city of Duluth and was one of the nation's largest hazmat evacuations. Although no lives were lost, some have said that some of the emergency responders' equipment perhaps was inadequate and the response could may well have been an over-reaction.

In order to avoid being caught off guard for a hazmat incident (either over-reacting or under-reacting), the parties involved with the response need to be properly prepared. Preparation involves identification and assessment of potential hazards in a community, education and training, budgeting, selection of proper personal protective equipment and myriad other topics. Lately however, preparation for hazardous materials incident and emergency response has involved the use of computers.

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