Whether the materials are flammable, toxic or radioactive, firefighters have been called to the scene to address a host of precarious cleanups over the years. Their flame-retardant gear, protective masks and breathing apparatus made them the best candidates for dealing with the unpredictable nature of hazardous chemicals since nobody else knew how to deal with some of these deadly combinations.
Many people believe the first firefighter hazardous materials, or hazmat, cleanup scenarios involved the dangers of gunpowder near fire. As industry evolved, so did hazmat cleanup efforts, but not without some grave sacrifices from the fire department. These incidents paved the road for future hazmat cleanup protocol and safety:
1964: In Marshalls Creek, Pennsylvania, a truck carrying explosives caught on fire. The driver parked the truck on the side of the road without warning placards and ran to call for assistance. Firefighters arrived at the scene to extinguish the flames, but they didn’t realize the truck could explode at any time. As a result, three firefighters and some bystanders were killed during a massive explosion. Since then, warning placards on vehicles carrying hazardous materials have become commonplace.
1970: Large explosions in Crescent City, Illinois, were caused by something most firefighters hadn’t dealt with—Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE). Train cars full of LP gas wrecked and destroyed the local pumping station. As a result, firefighters didn’t have enough water to extinguish the blaze. Despite help from firefighters in neighboring communities, it was difficult to fight the flames. The tank cars that were filled with flammable vapors exploded, and 60 firefighters incurred injuries.
1975: In Manhattan, a telephone switching building for the New York City Telephone Exchange caught on fire. Wires with plastic coatings burned throughout the building, causing a billow of toxic smoke. Firefighters extinguishing the fire weren’t wearing breathing apparatus, and they inhaled doses of the hazardous smoke. Unfortunately, many of the firefighters who helped to extinguish the blaze incurred respiratory problems and cancer, while some even died.
These experiences prompted the establishment of safety protocol and the evolution of more protective equipment to help firefighters successfully tackle similar situations.