Know Your Hazardous Materials and How to Handle Them

By: Benjamin Bracket

You have had an easy shift so far. A typical Friday at the fire station. The lawn was mowed, station clean up and chores completed, and then a good, vigorous workout has you feeling like a rock star. You are sitting down with your crew for some afternoon training when the tone goes off. The computer voice comes rolling out of the speakers, sending you to a local lake to look for a vehicle in the water. In route to the call, your lieutenant relays some information: a family of four was launching their boat at the local boat ramp when the tow vehicle rolled backward down the boat ramp and into the water. There were no reported injuries, but the vehicle represented an environmental risk, so your team was tasked with its retrieval. “Piece of cake,” you think, and you decide that using a full drysuit is probably not necessary since this is just a simple vehicle retrieval.

On arrival, you and your team make a quick assessment, and determine that an easy shore entry down the boat ramp is the most appropriate entry method. You don your 3 mm shorty, grab the tow straps, and make your entry. About 18 m/20 yds offshore, you submerge onto the sunken truck. You make a quick sweep around the vehicle to ensure there are no unexpected victims, and then you attach the tow straps onto the front axle. As you are attaching the tow straps, you feel a gentle burning around your neck. The burning continues to worsen as you complete the recovery and make your way to shore. As soon as you can, you doff your gear and examine your neck, noting the very strong smell of gasoline as you do so. You find the skin to be red, irritated, and tender like it had been burned. Further, you notice the neoprene from your 3 mm shorty is bubbled and damaged. The Lieutenant comments that you probably shouldn’t have swam through the gas and oil slick that had surfaced from the vehicle as you made your way out.

Standardize requirements for Public Safety Dive Team protective ensembles 

In 2016, the National Fire Protection Agency released NFPA 1953 Protective Ensemble for Contaminated Water Diving. The intent of this publication was to standardize requirements for Public Safety Dive Team protective ensembles. In doing so, the standard attempts to ensure that any drysuit marketed and sold with NFPA labeling meets a uniform standard for protection for public safety divers.

What is Contaminated Water?

In section 3.3.8 of NFPA 1953, contaminated water is defined as “a body of water that potentially contains a chemical or biological substance that poses a chronic or acute health risk to exposed personnel.”  Section 3.3.19 further defines contaminated water as “moderate contamination when increased levels of chemical and or biological contamination are anticipated to be found: poses a moderate health risk to the rescuer if not properly protected.”

Some examples of moderate contamination include the water column directly around human or animal remains, or the sediment at the bottom of a typical pond or lake. Section 3.3.29 defines severe contamination as “grossly contaminated water with highly concentrated chemical and or biological contamination: poses an immediate and or severe health risk to the rescuer if not fully encapsulated.”

Examples of severe contamination include leaking fluids from vehicles in the water, golf course water obstacles, septic tanks, sludge ponds on feedlots, and sewer systems. So now that we have the basic definitions outlined, let’s take a look at some specific examples using three of the most common public safety diving scenarios: Body recovery, evidence recovery, and vehicle recovery.

Body Recovery 

Humans are living organisms. The body actively expends energy to maintain a state of homeostasis, or balance, as part of the living process. When life ceases, the balance is no longer maintained. The cessation of active maintenance in the body leads to an immediate breakdown. Sphincters dilate, muscles relax, and fluids will disperse in and around the body. When the remains are submerged underwater, this process still occurs, but instead of the fluids and “humors” pooling beneath the body, they float around the body, forming a cloud of human substances, with the decomposing body at the center.

When we recover the body from the water, we must move in and through this cloud. When we respond to an EMS call, the normal standard is to wear gloves before ever touching a patient. Why would you not protect yourself from this cloud when diving? Now consider the interaction between the victim and the aquatic life in the water. Given enough time, the crawfish, perch, bass, turtles and other life in the water will find the body. They will then do what comes naturally and begin to consume the remains. This will further add bits of flesh and debris to the water around the victim.

Evidence Recovery 

Let us now change the scenario to a search for evidence. There is a handgun used in a homicide that was thrown into a lake. The weapon sinks into the sludge at the bottom of the lake. The sludge is a collection of debris and detritus that has collected from days, weeks, months and years of rain, agricultural runoff, trash and dumping, and rotting vegetation. Heavy metals, PCBs, and trash all collect and sink to the bottom. As you search and look for the weapon, you are sliding your hand through the debris, stirring up the contaminants and sediment that has collected. Exposed skin, traditional regulators, and neoprene wetsuits offer no protection against most of these contaminants. Bodies of water that are considered safe to swim in, boat on and otherwise be exposed to will still have this collection of contaminants at the bottom. The level of this contamination will vary from locale to locale, but will still be present.

Vehicle Recovery 

A vehicle (automobile, aircraft, boat, train, or whatever else that moves with a motor and ended up submerged) in the water represents several different hazards to the public safety diver. Entrapment within the passenger compartment is a well-known risk that any PSD is aware of. However, there is a bigger risk that many of us tend to forget. The liquid contents of the vehicle: fuel, lubricants, coolants, and cargo all can potentially injure the public safety diver. Gasoline, other fuels and oil will all seek to rise in the water column, and a closed gas cap is no guarantee that the gasoline will stay in the tank. If the vehicle was involved in a collision as part of the process of entering the water, then vessels used to contain fluids may be compromised, allowing contents to leak out.

While attempting to search in and around a vehicle, the PSD will be moving in and out of these fluids, exposing the diver to all the various risks attributed to the fluids he is swimming through.  Further, if the diver is at the surface immediately above or close to the vehicle, he will likely be swimming in an oil or fuel slick. This slick is not always readily visible to the diver, so he may not even know he is being exposed until he starts to feel the effects.  

Three Primary HAZMAT “zones” 

There are three primary HAZMAT “zones” when diving PSD. The victim emitted zone (around human or animal remains), the collection at the bottom zone (sludge at the bottom from agricultural waste, runoff, and contamination), and the leaking from the vehicle zone (fluids and substances released from submerged vehicles). Public safety divers should always remember that they will likely be exposed to one of these zones on every dive they make.

Is it possible that you may have to dive in all three of these zones at one time, or worse? 

Absolutely. One particular call comes to mind for me. It was a very cold Feb night in Texas with ice on the roadways and limited travel for several days. A local dentist had been in West Texas providing indigent dental care and was traveling home with his two assistants. What should have been an eight-hour drive had lasted well over 20 hours due to weather. As they drove down the interstate, they hit an icier-than-the-rest patch and lost control, crashing through a guardrail, off a bridge, through some trees and landing upside down in a wide and deep spot in an otherwise shallow and small creek.

The vehicle came to rest inverted, with just the right rear tire barely visible at the waterline. There were three victims in the vehicle. The body of water they landed in was a consistent wide and deep pool for the creek, so there was a lot of agricultural run-offs collected at the bottom. To complicate the matter, even more, the dentist was traveling with all of the medical waste that had been generated from his trip in the vehicle. When we made entry, we had to swim through floating syringes, sponges, and other debris just to get to the vehicle. You bet we were fully encapsulated.

In closing, please know your environment, know the risks and always train to be safe. At the end of the day, go home safe.

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