Most personnel not trained to deal with chemical fires

While the accident involving a tanker lorry carrying the highly hazardous and inflammable methanol at Kalamassery on Thursday night may have passed off without any casualty, it exposed the highly vulnerable conditions under which the Fire and Rescue Services personnel, the first to respond in such disasters, work.

Fire and Rescue Services personnel, who fought to bring the situation under control in pouring rain, were in their plain uniform. Dealing with such a disaster mandated wearing hooded and fully encapsulated suits offering protection against hazardous chemical splashes.

Exposure to highly toxic chemicals like methanol could affect eyesight and could even prove fatal in extreme cases, chemical disaster experts said. Without any protective gear, the firefighters on the accident site at Kalamassery had to approach the site from an upwind direction.

Besides endangering themselves, the lack of knowledge and expertise in dealing with chemical disasters could put the safety of the public at risk. Of the 240 firemen under the Ernakulam division, only 30 have so far received training in emergency rescue operations related to chemical disasters and even they do not have the special gear that such operations warranted, sources said. Six fire suits with the Thrikkakara fire station are the only sophisticated protective equipment the entire department in the district can fall back on during such disasters.

Deciphering the HazChem (Hazard Chemical) code on the label affixed on the tanker involved in the accident is a vital component of fighting chemical disasters. The alphanumeric code suggests the agent to be applied, whether the firefighters should go for dilution or containment and whether the nearby residents need to be evacuated.

For instance, if the HazChem code reads 2SE, the number denotes that either fog or jet could be applied, while ‘S’ denotes that it could be diluted but there is the possibility of the chemical reacting violently, and E stands for evacuation. Evacuation also calls for consideration of factors such as the extent of leak of fire, wind direction, time of the day and even topography.

Firefighters untrained in chemical disaster response may be unable to decipher the code and may unintentionally precipitate the situation say by the application of water where the dry agent was needed and going for dilution instead of containment.

A chemical disaster expert who spoke to The Hindu on condition of anonymity said that it was high time that Fire and Rescue personnel and police personnel be given exhaustive training to deal with such disasters.

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