Unknown Hazmat Call: Expect the Worst

Image of unknown chemical drums

Some hazmat incidents are easier to assess than others. Parties who witnessed or were involved with the release or well-labeled containers can make the initial steps much easier.

Of course, that is not always the case.

Recently St. Louis hazmat units were called for two suspicious, abandoned barrels. They found some old flooring material, but nothing overly concerning. Still, the team took steps to secure the area until they were sure what they had.

According to Fox2Now, “Investigators determined some potential risks with the barrels. Though the contents inside didn’t pose any immediate concerns, firefighters say the barrels could contain carcinogenic materials with the potential to cause future health concerns, if inhaled.

“While investigating the barrels, crews placed yellow ‘caution’ tape around them and an orange-paper note that reads: ‘Danger … This container may contain hazardous substances … Avoid any contact.’”

A call like that could have gone very differently, as it did in 2021 for the Denver Fire department when it sent a full hazmat response for two hydrochloric acid leaks. In both cases, nearby buildings were evacuated and vehicle traffic was rerouted around the spill areas.

Also Read: 3 Tips for Hydrochloric Acid Releases

According to several news outlets, the more serious of the two incidents occurred when a 250-gallon container of hydrochloric acid was punctured by a forklift. The spill happened in an industrial commercial area north of Interstate 70.

Although there were about 20 people working at the site of the spill, there were no reported injuries to those employees or others in the area.

One day earlier, Denver fire responded to two 55-gallon drums of hydrochloric acid that fell off a truck and leaked. No injuries were reported at that leak.

Denver Fire reported that the hazmat team was aided in containing the spill and the vapors by the cooler temperatures. The crews had both leaks and the materials contained within a few hours.

Also Read: N.Y. Hazmat Call can be Fire Training Template

Confirming initial reports, having enough resources ready in case those reports are wrong and having first-arriving crews treat the situation with due regard will reduce the risk of the call going sideways.

If you do find your team dealing with a call more like the one in Denver than the one in St. Louis, here are three tips.


Prepare for both vapor and liquid containment. Denver called a full hazmat response. Follow Denver’s lead and going big early. In this situation, it is better to have all the resources you need on site. If that means returning unneeded equipment and personnel to service, so be it.


Know the lay of the land. To contain the vapor threat, you’ll obviously need to be aware of wind strength and direction as well as anything that could alter the movement of the vapors. And of course, waterways or sewers in the path of the spilled liquid need to be accounted for, which means considering the slope of the topography.


Communicate with the public. This is true for nearly all hazmat situations, and probably the hardest to pull off. We need to make sure the public is kept away from the scene for their own safety and to prevent them from thwarting hazmat remediation efforts by increasing congestion. We also want to head off any panic. Getting accurate and timely information out through various outlets like traditional print and broadcast media as well as social media is key. Ideally, this will come from one source close to incident command. That is a lot easier to accomplish in a metropolitan area like Denver where the incidents were within its jurisdiction; Denver was the only responding agency and it has a public information department. Where an incident or the responding hazmat team are regional, this crisis communication operation needs to be well planned in advance and a part of training drills. As with other emergency tactics, the incident is not the place to try to figure out how to get a quick, concise message to as many people as possible.

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