Monday February 1, 2010 - Vol. IX Issue 2
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Information Overload: Dealing with CBRNE and HazMat Incidents
By John Nordin
What is CBRNE and
We live in a dangerous
world. A terrorist may seek to inflict
harm on society by releasing or attempting to release a dangerous c
iological, or r
adiological material, or detonate an e
uclear device (CBRNE). There
are also many toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) and toxic industrial materials
(TIMs) used by industry and in governmental operations which can inflict
serious harm if accidentally released or if deliberately released as the result
of a terrorist incident. There may be a
clandestine operation manufacturing explosives or illegal drugs or a
“storehouse” containing unknown chemicals.
HazMat refers to incidents
involving dangerous chemicals and other materials. CBRNE refers to chemical, biological,
radiological, nuclear, and explosives.
The explosives may include improvised explosive devices (IED) and commercial
and military explosives. The lessons
learned from TICs and TIMs incidents due to transportation and industrial
accidents are valuable in how to protect civilians from CBRNE incidents.
Many reference sources are
available for finding information about CBRNE materials and TICs and TIMs. Most are available in the public domain and
are listed below:
Response Guidebook (updated every four years) - electronic version also
NIOSH Pocket Guide
to Chemical Hazards electronic version also available
Basic and Advanced
Life Support for Hazardous Material Injuries
Properties of Industrial Materials, available in book (left) or CD versions
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories model for radioactive
isotope releases, including releases from dispersive devices (dirty bombs) or
from fires (latest version 2.07)
Nuclear weapons (government
document, available in libraries and from Internet sources):
S. Glasstone (ed.). 1962; 3rd
ed 1977. The Effect of Nuclear Weapons
by the U.S. Department of Defense and published by the U.S. Atomic Energy
Commission, Washington, D.C.
There are many other reference
sources and military documents. Some are
compilations of parts of the references already cited.
How many different chemicals
are out there in the real world? To
date, the American Chemical Society has assigned about 34 million CAS (Chemical
Abstract Service) numbers to different chemicals. The problem is compounded by the fact that
many of the chemicals are known by different names. Add to this the fact that the many mixtures
and product formulations are made up of different chemicals. Fortunately, only a few thousand chemicals
are likely to be of concern to responders.
including the military use these reference sources in case of a CBRNE or HazMat
incident in case of a TIC or TIM release?
The answer is “No
”, or if any are used it is in a limited
way. Responders are too busy with
priorities such as protecting the public and saving lives. If responders can’t get answers right away at the time of the
incident, they are not going to mess with these reference sources.
How Responders Make Decisions
Responders to CBRNE and HazMat incidents are under stress
and must make decisions quickly. They do
not have the luxury of time to weigh alternative courses of action in an
organized or deliberate way and then select an action based on pros and
cons. Usually they have only skimpy
information about the incident and must focus on priorities such as saving
lives and protecting the public. An
incident commander generally selects one course of action based on experience
and training, and mentally runs through it quickly to look for flaws. If the incident commander does not find
flaws, he/she takes the course of action, and if flaws are found, the action is
adjusted accordingly. The incident
commander is also effective in communicating intent, e.g., what is it that we
want to do, and what are the hazards/obstacles along the way? The incident commander may not be able to
describe the decision-making process calling it a “gut feeling”, but what
he/she is doing is processing raw information about the situation at hand and
making a decision based on training and prior experience. This is done rapidly in the person’s
mind. The person is not even aware of
the process. The psychologist, Dr. Gary
A. Klein, who consults with the military on how to make rapid-fire decisions,
used the term, “Recognition Primed Decision” model for this process; the person
quickly and often subconsciously compares the situation at hand with a master
file (in the person’s mind) of previous situations and trainings and initiates
a course of action. The methodology for
making decisions is applicable to both civilian incident commanders and to
military training. The training
emphasizes goals and objectives, bringing people up to speed and imparting
experience, examining real incidents and the decisions made, drills, and
simulations. The successful commander
making the decision is also not afraid to change course along the way if
circumstances change or as new information becomes available.
Gary Klein, “Sources of Power:
How People Make Decisions”, the MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1998.
How to Package
Information on CBRNE and TICs and TIMs
Prior experience and training are very important to
responders in making decisions. But
there is a problem. CBRNE and TIC and
TIM incidents are too varied. There are
too many different dangerous materials, and too many different ways these
dangerous materials can be deployed or accidentally released to harm the
public. To attempt to try to train
responders on the many hazards and how to deal with them would result in information
. And responders do not have
time to wade through many references, even if the references are at a person’s
fingertips and organized in a simple way.
The problem is each reference is specialized, maybe one such as the 2008
Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) deals only with transportation accidents,
although some limited information on protective action distances for chemical
warfare agent spills is in the ERG. Another source deals only with
chemicals. Another source deals with
plume modeling in case of a toxic release of the chemical to the air. Another models “dirty bomb” releases. It takes time to learn and find the
What is the answer?
Suppose the technical information is packaged in a small computer tool,
which may be a stand-alone hand-held product or accessed through the Internet
or run on a laptop. Add to that map
overlays and Google-earth topographic features to examine consequences if there
is a chemical release to the air, a radiological or nuclear incident, or
explosion. This is the concept when
AristaTek developed the PEAC tool.
Training and experience are important, but technical information is also
important when making the right decisions.
There is too much technical information for a responder to remember; the
PEAC tool is designed to retrieve the essential information quickly.
Development of the PEAC Tool.
The concept for the PEAC tool developed as the result of
University of Wyoming Research Corporation (a not-for-profit entity, a.k.a
Western Research Institute) contracts in the 1990’s with the U.S. Department of
Energy (DOE) on public safety. A major
part of this work had as its objective of gathering information on toxic
industrial chemical spills and releases to the atmosphere. These contracts involved spilling hazardous
chemicals or spilling surrogate chemicals at the DOE HazMat Spill Center near
Mercury Nevada, and examining their behavior including dense gas distribution
in the atmosphere under stable nighttime and sunset conditions. The work was also funded in part by private
industry (a consortium of 10 petroleum and chemical companies) and by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Some additional tests were done measuring the evaporation rate of
spilled anhydrous ammonia and chlorine liquids.
Additionally, 123 real-world industrial accidents were surveyed which
involved public evacuations due to possible or actual release of toxic
chemicals to the air. The survey showed
for not one of the incidents were toxic gas dispersion models run to determine
public evacuations, even though the computer software was sometimes available. Under the stress of the situation where rapid
decisions were to be made, no one was at hand to run the model predicting
ambient toxic concentrations, although sometimes models were run long after the
incident. There was one incident in West Virginia where
the EPA ran a model for a “what-if” situation which turned out to be overly
conservative resulting in an evacuation that some later thought
“unnecessary”. The incident commanders
did what they always did, making their decisions based on a reservoir of past
training and experience. The study also
noted situations where incident commanders did not have adequate information on
the chemical behavior and toxicity resulting in decision mistakes, and there
were also mistakes made in communicating evacuations to the public. These events that were outside their realm of
training and experience.
The U.S. Department of Energy requested that chemical
information on public safety be shared with the public. Initially, for several years, the University
of Wyoming Research Corporation maintained a website where anyone could access
raw data taken at the DOE HazMat Spill Center for tests funded by public
funds. These test results have been used
for gas dispersion model development notably by Steve Hanna and others.
In the late 1990’s, the group at the University of Wyoming
Research Corporation who completed the HazMat Spill Center tests elected to
develop a self-contained, hand-held computer tool where chemical information
including toxic gas dispersion modeling could be easily accessed. This is part of the “public safety”
mission. In 1999, the researchers put in
some capital and elected to form a for-profit company AristaTek to market the
computer tool, which was called the PEAC tool, which at that time contained a
gas dispersion model, the information in the Emergency Response Guidebook, the
information in the NIOSH pocket guide, information on chemical protective
clothing and respirators from manufacturers, and other chemical information
from various sources. The earliest version
offered to the public used the Apple Newton as the software platform. Following the 9/11 event, the computer tool
was expanded to include information on weapons of mass destruction, including
chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear. AristaTek linked up with other companies
offering software packages and on-site analytical capabilities to provide
additional capability for emergency response.
Lab-top versions are available in addition to a hand-held version.
AristaTek continues to review actual incidents gathering
information from news stories and government accident investigations. Experience is the best teacher. Summaries of selected HazMat incidents are
posted in the AristaTek Newsletter, with links to websites and government
reports to obtain additional information.
Response to TICs and
TIMs Releases Important
One of the worst industrial accidents in recent history
occurred at a chemical plant near Bhopal, India, during the night of December
2-3, 1984. Water was added to a very
large storage tank containing methyl isocyanate during a pipe flushing
operation; the resulting heat generated when water and methyl isocyanate mixed
caused the methyl isocyanate to boil and vent from the tank. The vapor cloud of methyl isocyanate drifted
over nearby Bhopal killing thousands of people.
The official count of the dead certified by the local government in 1991
court trials was 3928, which was later revised in 1994 to over 6000
deaths. Approximately 100,000 to 200,000
people were estimated to have to have permanent injuries of varying degrees. There is some controversy as to whether
sabotage was a contributing factor to the release. This accident was reviewed in the AristaTek
U.S. government regulations
have done a lot to improve workplace safety.
Community-right-to-know regulations and placarding of transportation
vehicles have done a lot to inform responders what chemicals they are dealing
with in case of a HazMat incident.
Companies which store or use large quantities of certain dangerous
chemicals must comply with Environmental Protection Agency regulations (40 CFR
Part 68) must inform local officials of worst-case and possible chemical
release scenarios in addition to what chemicals are stored or used at the
facility. But all the regulations in the
world do not protect against acts outside the law, for example terrorist
activities and clandestine manufacture of illegal drugs and explosives or theft
of dangerous materials, or transportation accidents resulting from sabotage.
Even when responsible companies have accidents, later
investigations often reveal gaps in communication including failures to
communicate hazards. There have been
cases where companies thought themselves to be exempt from
community-right-to-Know reporting requirements, and because firemen did not
know what chemicals were present responding to a fire, they doused water on
water-reactive chemicals creating a worse situation. There were also situations where responders
drove through a vapor cloud of a toxic chemical thinking it was water fog
because it looked like water fog. In
another situation, responders fighting a fire at a chemical facility not
wearing respiratory protection (SCBA) had to be treated for inhalation of toxic
chemicals; the responders had accepted an initial statement by the company that
no toxic chemicals were released, and company employees at the scene were not
wearing respiratory protection. There
are also situations where it is best to let a building containing chemicals
burn and use fire-fighting resources to protect adjoining buildings or
property, if water runoff from the chemicals create a severe environmental
problem (e.g. contamination of water supplies, fish kills).
Who Needs the PEAC TOOL?
First responders, Incident Commanders, inspectors, City
Planners, the military, in fact anyone dealing with emergency response to
incidents involving hazardous materials, chemical radiological, biological, or
nuclear incidents, or explosives can use the PEAC Tool. There could be an accidental release of a
toxic industrial chemical (TIC) or toxic industrial material (TIM) or the
release may be deliberate as in the case of terrorist activity. Responders may encounter a clandestine
laboratory manufacturing explosives or illegal drugs, or an “abandoned”
storehouse containing unknown chemicals or other possibly dangerous materials.
The PEAC tool is also important in training responders to
these incidents in mock drills.
Hypothetical scenarios can be posed. The internal clock and date and location (a
latitude and longitude or a City) can be reset in the PEAC tool for different
drills. The user can work either in
English or metric units.
A trainer, assuming the role of an incident commander, might
request information for a chemical release such as (1) NFPA diagram and
personal protective clothing, (2) Level 2 Emergency Response Guideline level
based on a 1-hour exposure, (3) clear nighttime, low-wind, Protection Action
Distances overlaid on a map, to be used for public evacuations or
shelter-in-place, and (4) emergency basic life support to persons overcome by
the chemical. With training, the PEAC
tool can provide the answers in less than a minute in printout form or a file
that can be stored internally. Explosion
damage, fireball stand-off distances, radioactive isotope information, and
nuclear weapon information can also be accessed.
The bottom line is that
first responders and the incident commander must take all precautions in
protecting the public and emergency response personnel. They can’t always assume based on past
training and experience that the particular situation at hand is similar to
other situations that they have encountered before. Nor can they assume the “community
right-to-know” paperwork for chemicals stored or used at a site is up to date
and accurate, or reflects the hazards.