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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-14-002    Date:  January/February 2014
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-14-002
Issue No: Vol. 77 No. 4
Date: January/February 2014


When Disaster Strikes

by Gordon J. Delcambre, Jr

The latest edition of the Emergency Response Guidebook provides critical information to assist first responders at the scene of incidents involving hazardous materials.

On May 13, 2007, a tanker truck carrying ethanol overturned on an I–95 overpass in Baltimore, MD, and burst into flames. PHMSA’s Emergency Response Guidebook compiles information critical for responding to incidents like this one involving hazardous materials.
On May 13, 2007, a tanker truck carrying ethanol overturned on an I–95 overpass in Baltimore, MD, and burst into flames. PHMSA’s Emergency Response Guidebook compiles information critical for responding to incidents like this one involving hazardous materials.

Imagine driving down a limited-access highway. As you near an exit ramp, you glance in your rearview mirror and see a tractor-trailer truck approaching fast behind you. As you prepare to exit, you can tell that the truck is hauling a fuel tank that looks like it might hold gasoline. You note a small, bright red diamond placard mounted on the truck’s grille. The truck follows you onto the exit ramp. As you navigate the ramp’s sharp curve, you wonder if the truck might be traveling too fast to handle the curve safely.

It is. The next thing you know, the tanker truck’s tires are squealing and smoking. The top-heavy payload lists left under the momentum and…crunch. The tanker flips onto its side, and liquid gushes out onto the pavement. Vehicles behind the truck slam on their brakes, and a few seconds later traffic is at a standstill. You’ve just witnessed a hazardous materials incident.

What happens next falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates the hazardous materials (hazmat) industry. Ensuring the safe transport of hazmat cargoes in the highway environment is a responsibility shared with more than 40,000 registered shippers and carriers as well as the State and local emergency responders who often are first on the scene when an incident occurs.

The roadmap for assessing the situation at the scene of a highway incident involving hazardous materials is the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) published by PHMSA. Using the guidebook, first responders can quickly determine the nature of the material released and identify appropriate next steps to secure the scene and ensure a safe and orderly response.

“The ERG is an invaluable tool that provides emergency responders with critical information and guidance during the initial stages of a hazmat emergency,” says PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman. “Taking the proper action during those critical first minutes has a huge impact on the safety of both first responders and the people they serve.”

The latest edition of the ERG hit the streets in May 2012. Revisions include reorganized and updated information as well as new tables highlighting protective action distances for large spills involving six common gases that are toxic if inhaled. Here’s a look at what’s inside the 2012 ERG’s bright orange jacket and how the guidebook’s content can help save lives.

Creating the Gold Standard

USDOT is committed to ensuring that hazardous materials are transported safely and reliably, regardless of which mode of transportation a shipper chooses. Yet, in an imperfect world, the risk of incidents is always a concern, especially considering that nearly 1 million shipments of hazardous materials crisscross the Nation’s highways every day.

As the USDOT administrative arm charged with ensuring the safe transport of hazardous materials, PHMSA’s priority is to deliver critical knowledge directly into the hands of the Nation’s first responders. That’s where the ERG comes in. The guidebook was developed jointly with Transport Canada and Mexico’s Secretariat for Communications and Transportation, and with assistance from a number of other interested parties from U.S. Government and industry.

The 2012 Emergency Response Guidebook, shown here, is available free to the Nation’s first responder community.
The 2012 Emergency Response Guidebook, shown here, is available free to the Nation’s first responder community.

Funding for the ERG comes through PHMSA’s Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness grant program. All grant monies are funded by registration fees paid by hazmat industry shippers and carriers. Each year, a portion of those fees is set aside to pay for the production, printing, and distribution of the ERG.

First published in 1980, the ERG has since become the gold standard for assessing and responding to the initial phase of transportation incidents involving hazardous materials. The guide is available free to public safety agencies in all States and territories, plus Native American tribes, typically through designated emergency management agencies or offices. In 2012, PHMSA distributed more than 2 million copies of the guidebook to firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and law enforcement officers nationwide.

These first responders use the guidebook to identify specific risks associated with compromised hazardous materials. They also use it to determine measures they should take to protect themselves and the public, and to follow procedures for containing the incident as quickly and safely as possible.

The guidebook does not, however, provide information on the physical or chemical properties of hazardous materials. Nor should it be considered a substitute for emergency response training, knowledge, or sound judgment, as it does not address all possible circumstances associated with a hazmat incident. Although PHMSA designed the guide specifically for use at transportation-related hazmat incidents, the document could offer some limited value in applications at fixed facilities such as warehouses or manufacturing plants.

“As a chief fire officer and incident commander myself, I’ve responded to many hazmat incidents and have relied upon the ERG to identify those products involved, and what to do and what not to do,” says PHMSA Deputy Administrator Timothy Butters. “At PHMSA, we understand the importance of first responders having accurate information during the first critical minutes of a hazmat incident.”

Labeling of Hazmat

According to law, shipping documents, also known as manifests, bills of lading, or shipping papers, must accompany all hazmat shipments. In addition, PHMSA requires placards to be mounted on transport vehicles and freight containers carrying these materials. The placards are diamond shaped and 9.84 inches (250 millimeters) on each side and are mounted on the side, front, and rear of tanker trucks and containers. The placards are color coded according to hazard class. For example, orange indicates explosives, while red is used for flammable and combustible liquids like gasoline. This visual clue immediately tells responders that a tanker or container is carrying a hazardous material.

Illustration. The placard is a red diamond with the word “GASOLINE” typed across the center, with an illustration of a fire above the type and the number “3” below it.
Placards like this one provide critical information to emergency first responders at the scene of a hazmat incident.

Together, the manifests and placards provide vital information to identify the hazardous materials being transported. They are among the primary sources of information that first responders need upon arriving on the scene of a hazmat incident.

Organization of The Guidebook

For ease of use, PHMSA grouped the content of the ERG into color-coded pages. The front and back sections of the guidebook are white pages containing background and reference information. For example, the front matter includes a figure summarizing the various color-coded hazmat placards and the colorful symbols that help identify which hazardous substance is onboard.

The white pages also include charts to aid in identifying the various types of tank cars used in highway and railroad environments, as well as a section on the hazard identification numbers displayed on intermodal containers. In the white pages in the back section of the guidebook, users will find a list of emergency response telephone numbers in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

The ERG organizes the hazmat information alphabetically and according to United Nations (UN) identification numbers, giving responders a choice of two ways to quickly identify the specific or generic classification of the materials involved in the incident. The alphabetical list of hazardous materials is contained in a section with blue-bordered pages.

A section of yellow-bordered pages lists the hazmat and dangerous goods according to their four-digit UN numbers. The United Nations Economic and Social Council’s Subcommittee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods assigns and maintains the 4-digit UN numbers used worldwide to identify dangerous goods, including hazardous materials. The numbers appear in ascending order, referenced against the name of the hazardous material. With each entry is a reference to the relevant guide page (more on these later) listing the appropriate safety actions responders should take when dealing with an incident involving that specific material.

Shown here is the proper placement of the hazmat placards on the back and sides of gasoline tanker trucks.
Shown here is the proper placement of the hazmat placards on the back and sides of gasoline tanker trucks.

Next are orange-bordered pages, dubbed “guide” pages, which provide specific recommended safety actions. This section, arguably the most important in the ERG, consists of a total of 62 individual guides, each providing safety recommendations and emergency response information to protect first responders and the public. Each guide page is designed to cover a group of hazardous materials that possess similar chemical and toxicological characteristics. In greater detail the orange pages outline the potential hazards of the materials, the public safety issues of note, the protective clothing needed during a response, and the evacuation distances recommended.

Making the right decisions during the initial phases of an incident often will determine how quickly an incident is resolved. “There’s a certain protocol for handling fires and emergencies that involve hazardous materials,” says PHMSA Chief of Outreach and Training Tom Kiddy. “The guidebook serves as a quick reference for trained first responders.”

The ERG on the Scene

Back at the scene of the aforementioned hypothetical tanker crash, first responders armed with the ERG and a pair of binoculars survey the scene from a safe distance. Of particular interest would be the placards mounted on the side, front, and rear of the tanker truck. These visual clues immediately tell responders that the tanker is carrying a hazardous material. Zeroing in with the binoculars, the responders try to make out the UN identification number inscribed on the placard. In this case, it’s 1203. A quick flip to the yellow-bordered pages in the ERG under identification number 1203 confirms that the material in the tank is gasoline, which is a Class 3 flammable material and one of nearly 3,000 hazardous materials regulated by USDOT.

Starting with the 2012 edition, emergency first responders can access the ERG via mobile applications on smartphones, like this one in use at the scene of a hazmat incident.
Starting with the 2012 edition, emergency first responders can access the ERG via mobile applications on smartphones, like this one in use at the scene of a hazmat incident.

Turning next to the ERG’s orange-bordered guide pages, responders will find a list of potential hazards--fire, explosion, health--associated with a gasoline spill and instructions describing safe response tactics. For example, in terms of hazards, Guide 128 in the ERG explains that “vapors may travel to source of ignition and flash back” and that “inhalation or contact with material may irritate or burn skin and eyes.”

Guide pages also describe the protective clothing (such as a self-contained breathing apparatus) required for a flammable liquid spill involving a tanker and outlines appropriate emergency response tactics. For example, responders need to remove all ignition sources from the immediate area--no smoking, flares, or sparks. They also need to prevent the gasoline from entering into waterways and cover the spill with dry earth, sand, or other noncombustible materials before transfer to containers for transport offsite for disposal. If a fire is involved, suppression efforts could include use of dry chemical, carbon dioxide, water spray, or regular foams and need to take place at a safe distance or using unmanned hose holders.

The orange-bordered pages also list first aid responses. In the case of a gasoline spill, the responses could include moving any victims to fresh air, providing artificial respiration if needed, and then removing and isolating contaminated clothing and shoes.

Evolving With the Times

Revised every 4 years, the ERG continues to evolve to accommodate new hazardous materials, technologies, and response tactics. “We collect user feedback and incorporate those suggestions and changes into new editions of the ERG,” Kiddy says. “We also hold public meetings and roundtables and solicit formal comments from our stakeholders using the Federal Register.”

Expanded or revised sections of the 2012 edition include the following:

In addition to printed copies, emergency responders now can access the ERG through various personal mobile devices including smartphones and tablets. PHMSA partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Library of Medicine to develop smartphone applications (apps) for the 2012 ERG. The mobile ERG apps make it easier for firefighters, police, and other emergency first responders to locate the information they need quickly using the app’s search function. The apps are available to responders and the public free of charge through mobile phones’ apps stores.

Another benefit of the digital version is ease of reading, even during nighttime emergencies when light is limited. (See “Mobile Apps Bring Flexibility to Emergency Response” on page 32 in this issue of Public Roads.)

Delivering useful guidelines for addressing hazmat incidents into the hands of emergency professionals operating in the transportation environment helps ensure public safety, which is USDOT’s primary purpose. With the ERG, emergency first responders have the latest and most complete information to handle any situation.

Battalion Chief Martin Ranck, with the Fairfax County (Virginia) Fire and Rescue Department’s hazardous materials response team, sums up the ERG’s role: “When firefighters and other emergency responders arrive on the scene of a potentially dangerous hazardous materials incident, they can feel confident that they’re equipped with the most current information to make the appropriate decisions during those first critical moments.”

Gordon J. Delcambre, Jr., is a senior public affairs specialist with PHMSA. He is a retired U.S. Navy captain and graduate of the Defense Information School Public Affairs Officer Course and Hazardous Materials Compliance & Enforcement Course (49 CFR Safety & Security Compliance).

For more information, visit www.phmsa.dot.gov. To purchase a copy of the guidebook, visit http://bookstore.gpo.gov. Printed copies are available for sale to the public through the U.S. Government Printing Office’s Bookstore and other commercial vendors. Spanish and French language versions are available as well.




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