3 Tips to a Safe Prison Hazmat Incident Response

A hazmat call becomes increasingly more complicated when the incident site is an institution that houses people short or long term. Incidents at a nursing home or hospital are more involved than those at, say, a grade school or an office building where people can be evacuated and sent home. Those problems compound when the facility houses dangerous individuals held against their will — county lock up, state prison, federal prison and the like.

Recently, hazmat team members from three agencies were on scene at the Montgomery County Jail in Texas where employees were taken ill. Click2Houston reported that four employees were transported to the hospital and that the inmates were transferred to another facility. The employees reported smelling something and having an adverse reaction to it. Follow-up reports did not identify the substance or how the employees were exposed to it.

Last year in Virginia, firefighters and a hazmat team were called to the Rappahannock Regional Jail when inmates in the kitchen mixed cleaning chemicals and created a chlorine cloud. The Free Lance-Star reported that three were taken to the hospital and 17 required decontamination; the injuries were all minor. The hazmat team and firefighters isolated the problem and ventilated the area.

Also last year, in Tucson, Ariz., fire and hazmat crews responded to a prison for a possible fentanyl clean up. And while that substance turned out not to be fentanyl, crews had to respond as though it was. This last example highlights one of the dangers of hazmat incidents at correctional facilities. Despite the best security efforts, drugs such as fentanyl do make it inside the facility.

Here are three tips for dealing with a hazmat incident behind bars.

ONE

If ever there was a time not to meet your public-safety counterparts for the first time on an emergency, this would be it. Get to know the facility officials. Learn the layout of the site, ideally with maps and tours. And understand how the staff will handle and move the incarcerated population during an emergency. Ask what to expect from staff if that population collectively panics. See if joint training opportunities are possible.

TWO

Be on the lookout for hidden dangers. In these situations, the hazmat emergency may have been an intentional act to cause pandemonium as a diversion for an escape, an attack on responders, an attack on other inmates or as an act of defiance. Corrections1 published a 10-point checklist for correctional staff when they respond to an emergency. The list is useful to help outside first responders understand what challenges those who work in the facility face and what to expect from staff. In short, be aware of your surroundings and that the initial emergency may be a precursor to other disruptive activities. Keep facility staff with you as much as possible. They will know both the physical lay of the land and the social landscape. They are best suited to spot those hidden dangers and be best suited to get additional resources. Your team’s safety is priority one.

THREE

Have contingency plans for how you’ll set up shop and carryout tasks. Locating hot, warm and cold zones, areas for mass decon and evacuation routes will all be effected by limited access points in and out of the facility. Having a drone available early on can help with sizing up the outside. The same holds true for the interior where access between different sections can be limited and locked down. And expect to have to think on the fly when it comes to containing or removing materials. As with the previous tip, team safety is paramount, even if it delays controlling the hazmat situation.


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