Chemical fumes sickening school kids 1/4 mile away – what was done, and what would you do?

77 Santee School Students Treated in Chemical Spill – Training Perspective

Sometimes it helps to use an actual incident to review our own response and put training in a more realistic perspective.   According to NBC 7 out of San Diego:

A vapor cloud of chemical fumes sickened 77 school children and four adults on the campus of a school near San Diego Tuesday. The fumes were likely produced by a chemical spill at the YMCA located approximately a quarter of a mile from the campus of Rio Seco School in Santee, fire officials said. Children and adults complained of a strong odor at around 9 a.m., after classes began at the K-8 school. When dozens of people began to experience burning eyes, nausea and shortness of breath, school officials notified parents and called San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputies and Heartland Fire, according to district officials. Students were told to shelter in place as crews worked to identify the source of a bleach-like smell.

This is a great ‘actual’ incident to take the time and practice plume modeling and how your crew would handle this incident from a HazMat Sector perspective.  From all reports San Diego emergency responders did a great job in a potentially difficult incident.  Not only the HazMat team but your Engine/Truck company could be tasked with determining the affected area through air monitoring (if gas monitors carried)  or by just physically checking and reporting on conditions in an area. As the first in company officer, whether HazMat or not, this has the potential to be a complex incident.  From this and similar events we expect several things to need to be addressed:

Chemical spill,  Multiple victims, Shelter-in-place or evacuation decisions, Control of air handling equipment, Multiple agencies, Large area, Children, Concerned Parents of Children, Over-saturation of Emergency Room, Additional resources, Safe refuge area, Media, Communication problems  

Initiating the Incident Command System is the best start to both simple and complex incidents.  Using a unified approach the IC can bring in the other involved agencies: School District, Law Enforcement, EMS (if separate from Fire), HazMat, Public Health, etc.)  As first in company, setting up the ICS early will help drive a successful incident. By sorting out all of the action items we are able to simplify an otherwise overwhelming set of priorities and give the tasks to the appropriate agency.  The school officials will be a tremendous help in several of the above issues freeing up Fire/EMS to address the victims needing care.

Now back to HazMat, we expect the IC to ask and need answers to the following questions:

  • How bad is this stuff?
  • What is our area of concern?
  • Can we shelter in place or should we evacuate?
  •  Is anyone contaminated?
  •  Are we able to reopen?

We are immediately concerned for life safety both at the source and any affected areas.  Often the only way to scale the incident is answers to the above question.  Does the data support that we now have psychosomatic symptoms or do we have and MCI?  If you are lucky to have Public Health representatives on scene they can be a tremendous help in qualifying your findings (hopefully you have fostered good working relationships with your local experts).  Depending on the level of experience of the IC he or she may lean heavily on HazMat to make very big decisions related to the incident.  Remember your information may also determine whether a location stays closed or opens and could be the key information sought in a press conference.

Back to the HazMat basics

What can we learn from incidents like this one:

  • Review ICS and where we may be placed in the incident – it may not always be a tactical role (stopping the leak) but an information gathering role (air monitoring/plume modeling)
  • Review the types of air monitoring you have and what you are capable of, and what your area resources are capable of? Do engine companies in mutual aid rig carry gas monitors?  What monitors will you choose?
  • Review technical references.  Has your team used enough to forget how to find information in the books?  Take the technical information and give PPE recommendations, evacuation recommendations, and also a version for the PIO to use which explains the data.
  • When was the last time you spoke to your local Public Health Official, if they are not a regular part of your team.   Think of those who may respond and reach out for a training over coffee.  The time spent understanding their capabilities will be valuable when the actual incident occurs.

Here, Dave Williams, Battalion Chief San Diego Fire Hazmat describes what may have caused fumes that sickened more than 80 people at a Santee school in this NBC video.  This incident can happen in anyones first in, take the time to learn from it.


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