Sunday, 31 January 2016

Emergency Response - chemical leaks

The other day in the news I saw an article about an emerging concern in Canada.  It seems that there is a genuine fear of sabotage of oil pipelines, particularly in the westof that country.  With that in mind, it struck me that it would be helpful both to non-hazmat emergency responders (for example, ambulance officers) and to general readers to post about responding to a chemical emergency.

Knowing the risk

The first thing to remember is that chemicals are not magical.  Most substances are not dangerous provided proper instructions for their use and storage are followed.

If you live or work in an area where significant chemical use occurs, or in a transport corridor to such an area, it may be prudent to note the “UN Numbers” which you regularly see.  The chemicals denoted by these numbers can be looked up in this publication and guidance as to responding printed off.

Image from here

If you spot a risk


If you come upon the scene of an accidental chemical release, or are the first emergency responder on scene, contact the relevant emergency management agency for your jurisdiction.  In Australia, this would mean calling “000” and asking for the fire brigade.  If possible (and if it can be done safely), you should also advise –

  • The UN Number of the escaping chemical.
  • Whether the chemical being spilled is at risk of entering a stormwater drain or watercourse or otherwise escaping the scene.
  • Whether the wind is blowing and in what direction (many iPhones contain a compass application). 

Keeping yourself safe

If possible, put on protective glasses or goggles when near the chemicals.  Protect your mouth and nose with a wet cloth or a mask.  Avoid contact with contaminated water.  Do not consume food or drink which may have been contaminated.

If the substance is thought to be flammable, obviously do not use anything with a naked flame or spark (or an incandescent wire).

If you are in a motor vehicle, close the windows and turn off the air conditioning or heating

Image from here

Keeping others safe

If there are bystanders or people living or working nearby, advise them to stay indoors.  Doors and windows should be closed and air conditioning switched off pending advice from the authorities.


After the initial chemical release is controlled, ensure that checks for the welfare of people in the area (particularly children, the handicapped and the elderly) take place.  Emergency crews should be advised of any symptoms of which they should be aware, and provided with any necessary instructions as to decontaminating or disposing of clothing and equipment.


The information in this post has been drawn from the website of the International Civil Defence Organization.

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