Buzz Blog: The Flavor of Hazmat

The Flavor of Hazmat

Hello again fellow hazmatters, thanks for returning to read another edition of the Buzz Blog on Hazmatnation. We are already well into Fall with Winter rapidly approaching. Every September as summer winds down, we start thinking about the changing season ahead of us.

There are many fun things about fall. Orchards and farms usually host fall themed festivals. Families can enjoy hay rides, corn mazes, haunted houses and many other activities. Fall like weather is excellent for outdoor events and fall sports seasons. I personally enjoy the fall weather for my trips to the golf course. Cool mornings, warm afternoons and lack of humidity make for a great day to chase golf balls across the NE corner of my home state of Maryland.

Something else begins to arrive starting in September and is now a widely accepted part of the fall season. A certain scent and flavoring begins to appear around this time. You can get it in your coffee, taste it in your food and even smell it in the air!!!! That’s right, I am talking about PUMPKIN SPICE!!!! Love it or hate it, Pumpkin spice scents and flavors abound during the beginning of September and stick around through Thanksgiving.

In the case of the BCFD Hazmat, pumpkin spice was the culprit for an unusual odor call at a local school building. The unusual odor call in a school or large building with injury is one that we have all had to approach and solve the problem.

What’s the best approach to take? How do I solve a problem that could have many answers? Now before we dive into the scenario, here is a couple of links to the news story that was posted.

Yeah, Yeah I know, I can hear the jokes now. We actually heard them last October when the incident occurred. The local news station and Hazmatnation were all over it as the story broke that day. Anyone ever heard of the Pumpkin Ionization Detector? What is the IP of pumpkin spice? Does Draeger make a tube for that? I went back through the FB posts for a good laugh at this one. My favorite was the GIF of Linus in the pumpkin patch with the caption of the BCFD Hazmat searches for the Great Pumpkin in East Baltimore.

All kidding aside, there was a method to this madness in order for us to discover the problem. There are a few key points that I think are essential in handling this type of incident. The first and most important is to be targeted in your approach. A problem like this requires much more than meters to find the answer. The other point I would stress is to be systematic as well. We must be hazmat detectives approaching this problem. All the available information needs to be gathered and determine what is relevant to solving the problem.

Where would you even start with a call like this? The most logical place to me is to start by assessing the injuries or complaints of the victims. Consult with the paramedics on the scene and get an idea of the scope of the complaints. Patient signs and symptoms are always a key indicator of what the problem is. I will hammer this into the heads of our members.

Another call similar to this proves this point clearly. It was another response where up to 20 people complained of GI symptoms. The root cause turned out to be nitrates accidentally introduced into the water supply used to make the breakfast menu that day. The GI symptoms pointed towards ingestion as the most likely means of entry.

All of the victims that day showed elevated levels of methemoglobin when blood work was examined at the hospital. The BCFD Hazmat now carries RAD-57’s with the Met sensor as a result of this response. This bit of information was key for us in determining what the problem was that day.

Now let’s consider how this applies to our incident at the school building.

Several students in the same classroom were complaining of trouble breathing(including one that had asthma triggered) and noxious odors that made them feel sick. This is the key information we needed to begin targeting our search.

Knowing what the complaints were, allowed us to target a gas, vapor or airborne odor that we believe could be causing the problem. We also have an area to begin the search in considering all students were in the same 3rd floor classroom when the complaints began. Further questioning of the victims should take place. A detailed medical history, location in the building, time frame for the complaint to begin and so on. Other occupants should be questioned as well even though they have no medical complaints. Relevant questions need to be asked to gain the most useful information for planning the entry.

The first entry team can now have a definite objective with these bits of information. A couple questions for your entry team? What is the PPE choice? What detection equipment should be carried? Where does the RIT Team station themselves? The PPE choice is subjective to your jurisdiction’s protocols. SCBA is an absolute must with an unknown contaminant that you suspect was the cause of an inhalation complaint. Level B or TO Gear is acceptable depending on your operating procedures.

Level A would only be needed in extreme measures should the situation dictate. Detection equipment would also be based on what your team carries. Gas and Vapor detection is your primary goal for this response. You do not need to bring every single piece of detection off the wagon. BCFD Hazmat likes to utilize basic and advanced detection for our responses. The basic stuff is 5 gas(including PID or FID if you carry them) meters, tubes, papers and strips. Advanced detection would consist of the ChemPro for vapor(IMS), Infrared and Raman(if we have a suspected liquid or solid sample).

The first entry team can carry the basic equipment while a second entry team can utilize the advanced detection. The entry teams should report their findings directly to the hazmat supervisor or IC. This central collection of information allows for all intel to be analyzed by the decision makers.

The RIT team should station itself one floor below or adjacent to the area being investigated. Their location should allow rapid access to respond to maydays transmitted by entry teams. RIT teams are highly recommended even though this incident may not seem like it needs one. It is a good practice to implement RIT at every incident until it is deemed not necessary.

PPE chosen for the RIT should allow them to get in and out quickly with SCBA being a must. One thing to be noted is that all building systems must be evaluated. Air handling units and HVAC would be be a part of this. You also need to consider problems from off site sources if your initial investigations come up empty. In the end, our IMS meter(Chem Pro) was able to solve our problem for us. The sweep with basic detection gave us no indications of a source of the problem.

The Chem Pro utilizes a trend mode which indicates areas of higher concentrations of a gas or vapor. Extensive user training is needed to understand the ChemPro and what it is trying to tell you and that conversation is for another time. In short, the trend line led us to an adjacent office area to the classroom. Knowing where the largest concentration existed easily pointed us to the problem. The malfunctioning wall mounted pumpkin spice air freshener was giving off an awful odor that extended to the classroom in question.

The air freshener was deemed to be the most likely source of the problem. All students with complaints were evaluated by EMS with a few being transported for further evaluation. The situation was abated with students and staff returned to their regular school schedule for the remainder of the day. In summary, these types of calls need a targeted and systematic evaluation of the situation in order to achieve the desired outcome. Focusing on the process allows the result to take care of itself. Biological, physical, environmental and detection clues all need to be pieced together to solve the riddle that is presented to you.

As I finish writing and proofreading this blog on Veterans Day, my thoughts drift towards friends that have served. Two of my closest friends have been deployed several times and been involved in combat. Mike Berth(USMC) and Brent Moore(US Army) are close fire service friends from Elkton, MD. Mike currently serves as an airport FF at the New Castle County Airport while Brent is on the job at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford Co. MD. Their desire to serve the public is stronger than ever. They are both an inspiration as well as true family men with their wives Hannah and Katie just as strong as they are. Thanks to these two as well as other the other veterans out there who sacrificed for our freedom!!!! Until next time, Be safe out!!!!