Incidents involving fires and hazardous materials present a significant danger for emergency responders whose work covers other areas (for example, ambulance officers and police). This note condenses the guidance from Victoria State Emergency Service's Standard Operating Procedures 20 and 30, which may be considered to be best practice in such situations.
Any hazmat incident (involving fire or not) should be approached from uphill if possible and certainly from upwind. An emergency service vehicle should be parked pointing away from the hazard to enable a swift escape if necessary. A person should not pass through gas or vapour clouds or through smoke either on foot or in a vehicle.
The emergency service vehicle should be parked a safe distance from the hazard. What distance is safe will obviously depend on the circumstances, although 70 metres / 230 feet should usually be considered a minimum safe distance. Responders should try to gather information about the fire to relay to the fire service if this can be done safely (for example, reading the hazmat placard through binoculars).
Vehicles carrying hazardous materials in Australia must in general display an Emergency Information Panel as well as a dangerous goods label. Rules on what information must be displayed can vary between jurisdictions and should be checked for your local conditions.
Image from Victoria State Emergency Service Standard Operating
In general (and without being flippant), in most jurisdictions, incidents should be treated with extreme caution if a placard features a prominent "1" (denoting explosives), a skull-and-crossbones (toxic substance), or any design resembling a trefoil (infectious or radiological substance)
While conducting any operations in the vicinity of a hazmat incident, all responders should wear full personal protective clothing and equipment (PPC&E) including face masks and goggles (rather than safety glasses). People wearing contact lenses should consider removing them: some chemicals can cause lenses to adhere to the eye surface.
Non-hazmat responders should not enter the immediate area of the incident until it has been rendered safe by the appropriate agency, including to conduct a rescue. Nobody needs a dead hero.
Hazardous chemical fires
Many emergency responders will have basic fire-fighting training. However, any decision to fight the fire without fire brigade support should only be taken after considering -
The available equipment and member competency.
The size and type of the fire.
The need for immediate assistance for trapped persons.
The risk of explosion.
The likelihood of dangerous smoke or gas being present.
Bystanders in the area should be moved to the safest available location (ideally behind a solid object) and certainly away from any gas or similar clouds. A perimeter and traffic controls should be established.
Motor vehicle fires
Fires involving vehicles will in most cases be caused by arson, fuel ignition or electrical faults. Two particular hazards will present themselves. First, these fires typically generate intense radiant heat. They should only be approached while wearing PPC&E which is intended for use in firefighting. Second, they will produce thick dark smoke which is toxic, containing as it does chemicals used in the construction of motor vehicles.
Particular risks are posed by gas powered vehicles. Gas cylinders can rupture and explode, spreading metal shards over a large area.
Australian gas powered cars will carry a red sticker on the number plate. Otherwise, check for dual filling points or a relief valve discharge outlet.
Choice of extinguishers
If a petrol vapour fire has broken out under the bonnet of the car, it may be possible to fight it safely. A foam, CO2 or dry chemical extinguisher should be fired through the engine grille first, and then through the slightly-opened bonnet.
Electrical and car battery fires should be fought with dry chemical or CO2 extinguishers.
Upholstery or other non-electrical, battery or petrol fires should ideally be fought with water.