Last reviewed 14 August 2013

In this article, Bill Atkinson discusses what you might expect when contacted by an emergency responder.

What should I expect?

The simple answer to this question is “it depends on when they are contacting you”. If it is after something has indeed gone wrong, either while your products are on the move or perhaps worse, on your site, then your mind is likely to be in a whirlwind thinking about what went wrong, what the consequences are and how to fix it.

Who you will be dealing with will depend on whether the incident is accidental, in which case the fire service will take the lead. If, heaven forbid, the incident is deemed a deliberate one — or Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) — then the police will be the lead agency. Then there are the other agencies who could get involved, especially if the incident spreads “off-site” or causes a pollution incident.

Whether the incident is site based or transport related, the emergency response procedures that are followed are the same. On arrival at the scene, the priority is information gathering. This is used to identify the problem and the likely impact, to consider the risks to life, to plan the response in terms of the priorities, and the resources required in terms of personnel and equipment.

Until this process has been completed, the only actions taken will be in response to an identified immediate threat to life. It is therefore vital that you aid the emergency responders by providing the information that they require at the earliest stage. However, the request for information may not be as a consequence of anything going wrong at all, it might be purely as part of the planning (or “pre-planning” as it is termed) of the response.

The process

The process followed is detailed in a guidance document for fire services published in November 2012, titled Fire and Rescue Operational Guidance: Incidents Involving Hazardous Materials. It currently applies to England only, although representatives from the other countries within the UK were represented on the drafting panel and parallel versions are being developed for those countries. In the meantime, this document can be considered as a useful guidance tool (I should declare an interest at this point as being one of the authors). This guidance manual sets out the Generic Standard Operating Procedures (G-SOP) that the fire services follow, including how they assess the risks of the incident.

Part A lays out the pre-planning considerations, to prepare emergency response plans. Section 7(2)d of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, as amended, places responsibility on the Fire and Rescue Authority to make arrangements for obtaining information in planning its response to extinguishing fires, and protecting life and property in the event of fires in its area.

A site risk assessment (sometimes colloquially called a “7(2)d” after the section number referred to above) may require information to help them understand and quantify the risks posed on the site and plan their attendance accordingly. The information that is collected is then stored and can be referred to during mobilisation, sometimes on mobile data terminals (MDT) located within the cab of the fire appliance.

The information held includes:

  • site business name, address, contact details and map grid reference

  • directions to the site

  • actions on arrival for the first attending crews, including who to contact and where the main entrance is

  • an overview of the hazards of the site

  • a site map showing the locations of the buildings and dangerous substances

  • an inventory of the hazardous materials/dangerous substances commonly present

  • sources of pollution on site

  • pathways for run-off (this can be water used to fight fires or liquid releases from the site)

  • the location of surface and foul water drainage systems, including any interceptors

  • receptor sensitivity (eg nearby culverts or rivers, including details of water extraction points)

  • actions to take to prevent pollution

  • details of any equipment available on site (eg spill kits).

If you have not been contacted by your Fire Authority to prepare such a plan, it would still be a good idea to have as much of this information as possible easily available for the emergency responders. The UK environmental agencies have also jointly produced some guidance documents (see below). This information is not necessarily just a “nice to have”, it may be compulsory to pass it on.

Under the Dangerous Substances (Notification and Marking of Sites) Regulations 1990 (NAMOS), if the site holds more than 25 tonnes of dangerous substances at any time, then the site controller must notify the Fire and Rescue Authority of such, in writing. Dangerous is deemed anything that falls under the definition of such in the Carriage of Dangerous Goods and Use of Transportable Pressure Equipment Regulations 2009 (CDG 2009) and could include substances that are made on site.

The information requirements of NAMOS are similar to the 7(2)d and include the site address, the description of the business and details of dangerous substances held on site.

Transport incidents

For transport incidents, the first issue for emergency responders is identifying the load. This is especially true for packaged dangerous goods following the demise of product-specific instructions in writing (IIW) or “Tremcards” as they were commonly referred to (Tremcards™ being the trade name of one common form thereof). The regulators correctly maintained that these were only intended for the driver, but they were nevertheless a useful tool for emergency response in identifying the load.

A dangerous goods note (DGN) should still contain this information of course, but experience has shown that the format and content of information on DGNs can vary considerably and are not always easily understood by the emergency services. It is important that the documentation is complete and accurate and it would be advisable to have a clearly visible 24-hour contact number for further information, whether this is for the consignor or the consignee.

The quicker the emergency responders have all the required information to assess the risks, then the sooner they formulate and act on their emergency response plan, which will resolve the situation more quickly and easily (and cheaply). It therefore pays to have done your preparation and to have the information to hand, as well as having robust mechanisms for passing on this information.

Further advice

Various guides are available, including Dealing with Spills: PPG22.