Business Times

Hazardous materials, isolation/evacuation methods and incident management

By Upali Jayathilaka

Whenever there is an emergency, the fire department is the first to respond or being called to the scene. Emergencies involve not only fire incidents such as collapsed buildings but also motor vehicle accidents, aircraft crashes, floods, hazardous material incidents, civil disturbances, rescue operations, explosions and medical emergencies.

Standard operating procedure consists of life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation. Brigades responding may create positive or negative results. A well trained fire/rescue team from within the company workforce should be delegated to the job.

The corporate sector needs to realize that the fire risk/potential hazard has the potential to destroy an entire organization or pose a threat to people’s lives if not controlled. History has shown that failure to recognize the potential dangers presented by a particular type of construction and the effects a fire has on it can lead to deadly results. Most building codes have the same five construction classifications but use different terms and components to name the classifications. The five types include:

  • Type 1 (fire resistive) Construction
  • Type 2 (Non Combustible or limited combustible) construction
  • Type 3 (Ordinary) Construction
  • Type 4 (Heavy Timber) Construction
  • Type 5 (Wood- frame) Construction

Thermal Expansion

If a concrete or steel bar is heated, its volume will increase slightly. The effect is called thermal expansion and is usually too small to notice but unless space is left for it, it can produce enough force to crack the concrete or buckle the steel. Most solids expand when heated.

Kinetic theory

According to kinetic theory, solids and liquids are made up of tiny particles (atoms or molecules) which attract each other, the higher the temperature, than on average, the faster the particles vibrate. One meter lengths of different materials expand when their temperature increases by 1000 degrees Celsius. For greater lengths and higher temperature increases, the expansion is more. When choosing materials for particular jobs, it is important to know how much they will expand.

Heat can travel through space without any visible motion; radiation is the transmission of energy as an electromagnetic wave (such as light waves, radio waves or X ray) without an intervening medium, because it is an electromagnetic wave. Radiation is the cause of most exposure fires.

Class D Fire

Class D fires involve combustible metals such as aluminum, magnesium, titanium, zirconium, sodium and potassium. These materials are particularly hazardous in their powdered form. Some burning metals make water and other common extinguishing agents ineffctive, so special extinguishing agents are available for control of fire in each of the metals.

Toxic atmospheres not associated with fire

Many industrial process use extremely dangerous chemicals to make ordinary stems, for example, quantities of carbon dioxide would be stored at a facility where methane (wood alcohol), ethylene, dry ice or carbonated soft drinks are manufactured. Many refrigerants are toxic and may be accidentally released; causing a rescue situation to which fire fighters may have to respond.

Ammonia and sulfur dioxide are two dangerous refrigerants that irritate the respiratory tract and eyes. Sulfur dioxide reacts with moisture in the lungs to from sulfuric acid. Other gases also form strong acids or alkalis on the delicate surfaces of the respiratory system. An obvious location where a chlorine gas leak may be encountered is at a manufacturing plant; a not so obvious location is at a swimming pool or water park. Chlorine is also used in manufacturing plastics, foam, rubber, and synthetic textiles and is commonly found at water and sewage treatment plants.

Spontaneous heating

Spontaneous heating is due to chemical or bacterial action in combustible materials which may lead to spontaneous ignition. The following list of materials are subject to spontaneous heating; charcoal, fish oil, linseed oil, raps, fertilizer, rags- bales, iron metal powder hay brewers, grains manure.


Distance to isolate or evacuate people from spill areas are only for the initial phase of an accident involving volatile, hazardous liquids or gases. Continued reassessment will be necessary since there may be a change in circumstances, such as a change in wind direction.

Isolation and evacuation distance

Isolate in all directions first and then evacuate in a down wind direction.

Health Hazards

If inhaled, poisons may be fatal. Vapors may cause dizziness or suffocation and contact may burn skin and eyes. Contact with liquid may cause frostbite.

Fire or explosions

Keep unnecessary people away, stay upwind and keep out of low areas. Isolate the hazard area and deny entry.

Spill or leak

Keep combustibles away from spilled material and isolate area until gas has dispersed.

First aid

Move victims to fresh air and call emergency medical care. If not breathing, give artificial respiration and if breathing is difficult, give oxygen. Remove and isolate contaminated clothing and shoes and in case of contact with material, immediately flush skin and eyes with running water for at least 15 minutes.

Radioactive Radiation

There are 3 types of radioactivity radiations: - alpha, beta and gamma. The 3 types of radioactivity emission vary in their ability to pass through material. This has important consequences for handling radioactive substances safely. All these forms of radioactive emissions can affect the atoms or molecules of any material tey pass through. The radiations knock electrons out of atoms to produce positive ions and so are sometimes called ionizing radiations.

Ionizing radiations are dangerous to life because they affect the atoms and molecules in living cells. If they affect the DNA molecule in a cell (which controls all the processes for life) the cell can die or become cancerous, growing out of control. Gamma radiation can penetrate skin and bone and cause burns and cancer. Beta radiations can also pass through the skin and cause illness and changes in a cell’s DNA. Alpha radiation cannot pass through the skin and is therefore, less dangerous.

The author is a professionally qualified fire crew chief, training instructor and a safety inspector. He could be reached at -

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