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Biological agents involved in fire

Hazard Knowledge

Most biological agents do not survive well in high temperature situations; in fact, one method of cleansing equipment that has been used with biological agents is treatment in an autoclave.  An autoclave subjects the items inside it to temperatures of approximately 120C and pressures of in excess of normal atmospheric pressure (2.2 bar). In fire situations, it is more than likely that a biological agent subjected to the fire will have been destroyed. 

In the absence of any life risk, because the biological agent is likely to be destroyed in the fire, a ‘controlled burn’ is often considered rather than an offensive attack on the fire. The decision to employ a controlled burn should not be undertaken without seeking expert advice; advice from the hazardous materials adviser (HMA) may be particularly important and they may in turn seek specialist advice from experts in the industry. Advice from these experts will determine if the agents involved in the fire will have been destroyed.

Chemical protective clothing (CPC) is not suitable for firefighting activities. Therefore, it may be necessary to adopt defensive firefighting tactics if biological agents are involved.

The hazards and risks associated with making an offensive attack on a fire involving biological agents are varied but include:

  • Biological agents may be released from the incident by either the smoke plume or run-off
  • Animals used for research, which are potentially infected, may be released
  • There may be difficult access, high security doors and entrance systems or air-lock door systems
  • There may be ventilation systems
  • There may be radiation sources
  • Bulk solvents/flammable materials may be present
  • Cryogenic materials may be present

It may be difficult to determine a release – limited detection, identification and monitoring (DIM) equipment

Some establishments will be involved in the process of research on animals. These animals, if infected, may present a significant risk of infection and also a risk of spreading the infection if they were to be released from the confinement of the facility.  In these circumstances, the normal protocol is to not release any animals from this type of establishment. However, the research being carried out may be unique and the loss of these animals may significantly affect developments in medical research. It is generally understood that no attempt is made to release or rescue animals, but on-site specialists should be consulted early in the incident to establish the importance of these animals. Therefore, the hazardous materials adviser (HMA) should discuss these issues with on-site specialists to advise the incident commander on the tactics to be employed, such as the areas to focus on.