Firehouse Friday Chat – with Jack & Mack

Jack & Mack

Jack & Mack Nov 20th, 2020

Meet Jack a 30 year veteran. His mustache is as limp as a french handshake. It soars in the wind like a captive egret, finally released into the wild. Mack said in one particular windy afternoon “if that ‘tashe is truly yours, it’ll come back to you…” Jack punched him in the face!

Meet Mack, what he doesn’t know about CBRNe you could fit in a nutshell and still have room for the nut! He’s the steel in our Titanic! When he’s talking it’s like taking a long walk in tight shoes with a stone in it! He likes two kinds of women….foreign and domestic.

Mack: “Hey Jack, I met a volunteer fire fighter last week at a party. We knew because he was telling everybody! It was at a Fire Hydrant factory. I was late, “You couldn’t park anywhere near the place!”

Jack: “No one understands the importance of milliseconds, more than a volunteer firefighter”. It’s the amount of time they have between meeting you, and telling you they are a volunteer firefighter.”

Mack: “Seems Beyonce was visiting Disney World with her young son. The son seemed to be having a good time but had that look that something else was on his mind. Beyonce asked, “What do you really want, Son?” The Son said, “A Mickey Mouse Outfit.” With that, Beyonce went out and bought him a uniform from your Fire Department. Jack!”

Jack: “Waaah! I heard you had a bunch of soldiers in a class last week, they were watching you demonstrate the proper way to operate an extinguisher. You said, “pull the pin like a hand grenade, then depress the trigger to release the foam.” Later, outside the Officers quarters one of your best CBRNe guys was selected to extinguish a controlled fire in the parking lot. In her nervousness, he forgot to pull the pin. You hinted, “Like a hand grenade, remember?” In a burst of confidence he pulled the pin — and hurled the extinguisher at the blaze!! Daft p***!”

Pat is studying for a fire inspection exam and asks, can you help with the following three questions:

1. What is an informal way to initially recognize the presence of hazardous materials ?:

A. The EPA labels
B. Trade and industry associations i.e.. CHEMTREC
C. The United Nations numbering system
D. Smelling Gas

2. One limitation of using your senses to determine the presence of a hazardous material is that:

A. All hazardous materials smell the same
B. The appearance of some hazardous materials can deceive you
C. If you are close enough to use them, you may have already endangered yourself D. You cannot rely on what you see

3. Of particular concern to inspectors are radioactive materials that react with water and __________ (one word)

Jack: Very informal! I would say the answer is C although it appears to me to be poorly worded. In answer to the second question I would say the answer is B. Finally, number 3 the answer should be O2 or Air generally.

My old mucker, Phil Ambrose wrote an interesting piece on senses and Hazmat – “It is not that we as Hazmatters want to smell a chemical agent but that we as professionals better know what it smells like. Besides PPE problems such as suit breakthrough or poorly fitting mask another good reason to have an idea of the scents that are associated with the bad stuff is the valuable information, we receive from our witnesses/victims.

Understanding witness statements can be a vital key to helping us safely solve a hazmat/WMD problem. The book says if a witness (perhaps even as a last dying breath) states that it smelled like bitter almonds we should draw a connection to Hydrogen Cyanide. What if a victim says it smelled like an old boot? The book says Lewisite smells like geraniums. I had really no idea what geraniums smell like but Google images will at least give me a picture to look at.

For our own situational awareness (fancy for let’s all get home safely) we need to have an idea of the properties of the stuff that can hurt us. Having a sense of what the scents are can only help us. Below is a table of some bad substances and what they are known to smell like. Most of these may even knock you dead before the olfactory system tells the feet to run.

Cyclosarin – Peach scent
Soman – VapoRub scent
Tabun – Fruity scent
Lewisite – Geranium scent
Hydrogen Cyanide – Almond scent
Hydrogen Sulfide – Sulfur scent
Sulfur Mustard – Garlic scent
Phosgene – Mown Hay scent

Knowing the above is great except for one part. We can read scents and we can say and memorize words but it’s the smell that you need to know to save your life.

I had the opportunity to meet Rod Davis who is a retired fellow first responder (dodged bullets) who recognized that to make sense of the scents you must use your nose. Rod developed and put some cents into a system of cards which when rubbed and sniffed lets the nose experience the associated scents above without the dire consequences. Another thing to remember and what was peculiar for me was that everyone may have a different description of each scent as they experience it. I heard germanium scent described as grandma’s garden and almonds as an old boot. For my own situational awareness locker of life-saving tips I took good whiffs of each card with my eyes closed and hope to have them committed to memory when I need the help. If a victim ever tells me it smelled like old boot it won’t be the first time I heard it that way and I hope to draw the connection!

Featured Resources

HazMat Situational Awareness – Making sense of scent
Hazmat Scent Quiz: Making sense of scents

Test your knowledge, or learn something new with a collection of HazMat related Quizzes