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Relevant knowledge

The term ‘Hazardous materials’ (also referred to as a HazMat or as dangerous/hazardous substances or goods) means solids, liquids, vapours or gases that can harm people, animals, other living organisms, property or the environment. They include materials that are:

  • Toxic
  • Radioactive
  • Flammable
  • Explosive
  • Corrosive
  • Oxidisers
  • Asphyxiates
  • Biohazards

It also includes materials with physical conditions or other characteristics that render them hazardous in specific circumstances, such as compressed gases and liquids, hot or cold materials. Other organisations and agencies may use more technical and specific definitions because of their own requirements, but the above definition is the most appropriate for fire and rescue services on which to base their risk assessments and planning assumptions.

A clear distinction relating to hazardous material operations that needs to be understood before using this guidance is the difference between ‘contamination’ and ‘exposure’:

Contamination occurs when a substance adheres to or is deposited on people, animals, equipment or the environment, creating a risk of exposure and possible injury or harm. Contamination does not automatically lead to exposure but may do so.

Exposure occurs when a harmful substance enters the body through a route, for example, inhalation, ingestion, absorption or injection, or when the body is irradiated.

Due to the technical nature of hazardous materials operations, fire and rescue services must ensure their responders have access to the appropriate advice, equipment, skills, knowledge and understanding to maintain safety.

Specific hazardous materials roles may also be required in fire and rescue services to support and manage their hazardous materials response. These may include a hazardous materials adviser (HMA), decontamination director, mass decontamination subject matter adviser (SMA) or tactical adviser (TacAd). The number, type and specification of these roles will vary according to the fire and rescue service’s risk profile, risk management plan, equipment and appliances.

It should be noted that the term hazardous materials adviser (HMA) is a generic description for anybody with enhanced knowledge of emergency hazardous materials operations used by a fire and rescue service to provide independent specialist advice to the incident commander. It includes such roles as the hazardous materials officer, hazardous materials and environmental protection officer/adviser (HMEPO, HMEPA) and scientific adviser. Their primary functions are to:

  • Gather, filter and interpret technical information on hazardous materials for the incident commander
  • Assess the risks posed by emergency hazardous materials incidents
  • Provide hazardous materials advice on the development of an incident plan which may be at a tactical or strategic level

Hazardous materials incidents are predominantly accidental, frequently involve human error, natural or technological causes. The fire and rescue service will usually lead on this type of incident.

The key difference between a hazardous materials incident and a CBRN(e) event involving deliberate, criminal, malicious or murderous intent is that the latter is declared by the police, who will co-ordinate the multi-agency response. Many possible scenarios could lead to an incident being identified as a suspected or confirmed CBRN(e) event.

If during an incident, the release or spill of hazardous materials is confirmed as accidental then the incident will be reclassified as one involving hazardous materials. Incidents involving biological infections that are not spontaneous are also classified as hazardous materials incidents. The challenges posed and the response requirement for deliberate CBRN(e) and accidental HazMat incidents differ, but are similar or the same in many respects. For that reason, some of the information contained within this document is equally applicable to both situations and can be implemented for all levels of incident. Similarities in response include:

  • The requirement for a broad response process involving numerous organisations working together to bring the incident to conclusion
  • Multi-agency decision making to enable the development and implementation of integrated response plans
  • The need to protect the safety of emergency responders to enable them to carry out those plans