2 Takeaways from 2 Very Different High-Rise Hazmat Calls

Image of tower rescue operation

Image Source: Pittsburgh Public Safety Department

The tallest building in Pittsburgh became a hazmat scene April 5 when a contractor drilled through piping containing fire protection fluid.

The hazmat team was at U.S. Steel Tower overnight to stem the leak of the caustic liquid and remove it. Three people were injured, but there was no threat to the public.

According to the Pittsburgh Public Safety Department, hazmat arrived after 7 p.m. along with fire, EMS and police. Several roads were closed during the operation.

“The leak occurred in a column of the building that is filled with fire protection fluid, which occurred while a contractor performed work on the building,” PPSD wrote. “During efforts to seal the leak, crews also battled inclement weather.”

By the next morning, “the leak has been slowed but not stopped, largely due to pressure within the vessel. Hazmat is collecting the fluid and utilizing vacuum trucks to contain it, while maintaining contact with partners at ALCOSAN and the DEP.”

In one video aired on WPXI, the caustic material could be seen running down the exterior of the building.

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Not all high-rise hazmat incidents are this straight forward. In 2021 in a Chicago high rise, what started as a welfare check on a Tuesday ended that Friday with a body being discovered and hazmat and bomb squad teams removing chemicals that could be used to make explosives.

“A strong odor was emanating from the apartment and officers began getting sick while inside the apartment. So we called the fire department hazmat,” Chicago Police told ABC 7 news. Hoarding conditions made locating the materials difficult.

One of the substances was lead azide. University of Chicago Chemistry professor Scott Snyder told ABC 7 the compound “shouldn’t be that hard to make if you had access to the right chemicals.”

“What’s I think particularly scary about it though is that it’s pretty easy to have an explosion, so it’s sometimes used, typically, as like an agent to help something else explode, but it itself is actually quite explosive,” Snyder added.

That incident also led to an evacuation, which brings its own issues. Before all was said and done, FBI and ATF were involved in the incident.

Here are two takeaways from high-rise hazmat incidents.


A hazmat incident in a tall building will likely be associated with some other emergencies. Hazmat may or may not be the initial dispatch. Expect, and when possible, train, to work with EMS, police, fire suppression and perhaps FBI and ATF. For you gamers who want to see what a virtual high-rise fire with hazmat looks like, you can watch this video of Into the Flames.


You may or may not have to contend with people. In Pittsburgh, the office was largely empty when the emergency began — and the emergency was largely contained by the time workers began showing up the next morning. Some streets were closed, but otherwise, contact with the public was minimal.

Also Read: 4 Tips to Keep Your Hazmat Team from Being Cancelled

In Chicago, they weren’t sure what they were dealing with, some officers reported feeling ill and the building was mostly residential. There was a prolonged operation and an evacuation, putting responders in close contact with the public. If mishandled, this contact can hinder the operation and turn into a public relations nightmare — which it didn’t in Chicago.

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