9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Using the ERG: Emergency Response Guidebook Aids Telecommunicator Response

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, January 2015
Written by David Donohue, MA, MEP, CEM, EMT-P, is the director of Franklin County (N.Y.) Department of Emergency Services.

Imagine it's a quiet Thursday afternoon at your PSAP, which serves a rural and suburban county of more than 200,000 people, providing emergency dispatch services to several small police departments and a combination of small, primarily volunteer, EMS and fire departments.  The PSAP receives a call from a local food processing company.  The caller, the plant manager, advises that a worker has driven a forklift into a cooling line, resulting in a leak of anhydrous ammonia.  The ammonia cloud is exiting the facility to the east, and is moving toward a nearby neighborhood and elementary school, located approximately a quarter-mile away.

You send emergency responders to the incident, and a nearby police officer is requesting information on how far out she should set up road blocks.  Shortly thereafter, the first responding engine advises that they are unable to find their Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) and require assistance in researching initial actions and evacuation distances.

The Emergency Response Guidebook
The ERG, which is required to be on board every emergency vehicle, is a valuable tool for emergency personnel facing hazardous materials or weapons of mass destruction incidents.  The guidebook -- developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Transport Canada and the Secretariat of Transport and Communications of Mexico -- is designed to provide initial guidance for emergency personnel responding to a hazardous materials accident, as well as response to unknown substances or weapons of mass destruction.  PSAP personnel should be familiar with the ERG in order to better support field providers.

The ERG is broken down into five color-coded sections.  Each section provides information that leads to general guidelines for initial emergency response.  There are two sections of white-bordered pages.  The first white-bordered section runs from the front cover to page 19.  The response information begins on the inside cover by identifying where shipping papers for hazardous materials will be kept, based on the method of transportation.

Page 1 lists the three primary steps for using the ERG, and pages 2 and 3 provide general response procedures.  Pages 4 through 19 provide means of classifying hazardous materials by DOT class and division number, placards, United Nations (UN) Hazard Identification Number, container number and type, and pipeline.  In addition, the Table of Placards located on pages 6 and 7, and the container diagrams for both rail and road containers located on pages 8 and 9, provide initial direction on which emergency guide should be utilized based on the information available.  These guides are indicated by a circled 3-digit number located next to the diagram or placard.  This 3-digit guide can be found in the orange section, which is located in the middle of the guidebook.

The yellow-bordered pages, which run from page 20 through page 89, list chemicals by their 4-digit UN identification number.  Explosives, however, do not have a UN number and are listed first on page 21.  The UN number can be found on shipping papers, within placards and on the orange panel located on the outside of shipping containers such as rail cars and trucks.  In addition, some facility pre-incident documents and Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) plans may list the UN number.  The column located next to the UN number provides a 3-digit number that corresponds to the emergency action guides located in the orange-bordered section.  The use of the letter P following the 3-digit guide number indicates that the material may be subject to polymerization.  In other words, the material may rapidly grow in size, resulting in a failure of the container to hold the material.

Blue-bordered pages are the third section of the ERG and are similar to the previous section.  The chemicals are listed in alphabetical order.  The emergency action guide is listed in the middle column and the UN identification number is located in the last column.  Some of the materials listed are highlighted in green.  This indicates that the materials are extremely toxic and require modified protective action distances.  If a material is highlighted in green and there is a leak or spill with no fire, then the initial isolation and evacuation distances listed in the green section should be used.

Beginning with Guide 111, located on page 160, the orange-bordered pages provide general direction to guide the emergency responders' actions through the first minutes of the hazardous materials emergency.  These two-page guides list the general hazard along the top border of the pages.  The left page has two sections.  The top section identifies the general fire or explosive hazards and health hazards.  Whichever hazard is listed first is the greatest hazard.  The second section identifies response actions including protective clothing and evacuation distances, which are intended to provide for the health and welfare of the community.  The right-hand page describes emergency response actions that may be taken, including methods of fire extinguishment, spill and leak control, and first aid measures.

The green-bordered pages are composed of three tables.  Chemicals listed in the green-bordered pages are either very toxic in low doses or produce toxic gases when exposed to water.  These materials require quick, positive action within the protective action zone to reduce the likelihood of death.  These actions may include shelter-in-place or evacuation.

The chemicals listed in table 1 of the green section, which are also highlighted in both the yellow and blue sections of the ERG, provide actions for both small and large spills, each of which begin with identifying a recommended initial isolation distance first.  This is the distance that should be evacuated in all directions.  This is followed by recommended protective action distances.

Table 2 in the green-bordered pages provide a listing of water-reactive chemicals that give off materials that are toxic by inhalation when they are wet.  If the materials become wet, then the action distances listed in the orange section should be followed.  For example, if a rail car containing potassium cyanide is involved in an incident, and the material becomes wet, whether by firefighting efforts or weather, hydrogen cyanide gas is produced.  If the incident occurs at night, then an initial isolation distance of 300 feet should be established and downwind protection actions should take place within 0.8 miles of the  incident.  However, if the same material is involved in an incident and is not exposed to water, then the initial isolation distance is reduced by 75% to 75 feet.  

Table 3 in the green-bordered section provides isolation and protective action distances for six common toxic inhalation hazards for incidents involving releases from various sizes of containers, and takes into account wind speed as well as time of day.

The final white-bordered section runs from page 356 through the back cover.  It begins with directions on how to use the ERG and describes potential actions that may be taken, including initial isolation, evacuation and fire control.  The section also briefly describes the types of protective clothing, their use and limitations.  Pages 365 and 367 provide information on Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosions (BLEVE) and page 367 has general information regarding liquefied tank fires, including critical time to failure, water needed and evacuation distances based on the size of the tank.  Pages 368 through 372 review the indicators of potential criminal or weapons of mass destruction involvement and page 372 provides safe stand-off distances for explosives and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tank explosions.

Finally, the ERG concludes with a glossary of terms, followed by contact information for emergency response, including poison control, Chemtrec, the Department of Defense and the National Response Center.

While all emergency responders, including emergency PSAP personnel, should be familiar with the ERG, the ability to use it in an emergency to provide critical information is limited by the user.  Regular review and practice provide telecommunicators the ability to assist field personnel with timely and accurate initial response, and ensure the safety and security of the community are maintained.  Understanding the use and limitations of the ERG will allow the PSAP to serve a a functional member of the response team during critical incidents, adding value to the role of the PSAP during emergency response.

The ERG is available for download at www.phmsa.dot.gov/hazmat/outreach-training/erg.

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