According to a leaked document, the government are due to reduce the number of the fire service’s incident response units (IRUs) by a third. These vehicles provide decontamination facilities and spill response in the event of an emergency involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear contamination incident . According to the document, 22 out of 65 of these emergency response vehicles are to withdrawn, including 4 out of 10 in the London area.
Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, stated that there had been no consultation with regard to this reduction, and that it should be delayed until ministers had explained the reasoning behind the action. A spokesman for the government stated that speed was the priority in dealing with such incidents. It was better to train all front line staff to deal with these emergencies immediately, rather than wait for specialized equipment to arrive.
According to the leaked document, the IRUs are to withdrawn from the following areas: Alfreton, Broughton, Blandford, Bovey Tracey (Devon), Burton, Canley, Cheltenham, East Greenwich, Godstone (Surrey), Hereford, Morecambe, Penzance, Plaistow, Slade Park (Oxford), Southern (Leics.), St Albans, St Neots, Stalybridge, Stanmore, Walsall, Wimbledon and Winsford.
It has been claimed that the immediate cause of the decision to axe so many units was that the protective suits with power respirators were reaching their expiry dates, so would have to be replaced. Thus by withdrawing a third of the units, the replacement costs would be cut by a third.
The role of contamination incident response units and emergency clean up
The incident response units contain specialised decontamination showers (which can be set up in decontamination tents), various detectors for toxic chemicals and radiation, and a range of protective clothing, including protective suits with power respirators. Each unit also contains a forklift truck. The units are staffed by specially-trained personnel from local fire brigades. The response vehicles have the capacity to perform mass decontamination of members of the public who may have been exposed to a toxic chemical or other contaminants, in addition to decontaminating fire crews. The protective clothing allows firefighters to carry out emergency clean up when necessary after a contamination incident.
Although some politicians and commentators have emphasized the possible role of the units in dealing with terrorist threats, such as a possible ‘dirty nuclear bomb’, in practice their main use is to deal with chemical contamination incidents. These can include the discovery of illegal drug manufacturing facilities. Incidents in which damage to asbestos materials occurs, releasing asbestos fibres into the atmosphere, may also require the presence of an incident response unit for emergency clean up.
Large scale chemical accidents
Serious chemical incidents are rare in the UK. One example is the Hickson and Welch fire in Castleford in 1992, where a fireball from an explosion from overheated nitration residues killed five workers. In this case no extensive contamination resulted, but the incident does show that major events can occur without warning in regions of the UK not particularly known for chemical production.
In 2005, a major fire and explosion at an oil storage depot at Buncefield, outside Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, lead to the closure of the nearby M1 motorway. About 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Fortunately nobody was killed, but this was only because the accident happened outside normal working hours, at 6am on a Sunday. There were over 40 injuries, and extensive damage to both commercial and residential property. Pollution of land and watercourses from hydrocarbons and the fire-fighting chemical perfluorooctane sulphonate resulted, as the bunding (liquid containment areas) on the site was poor and failed in numerous places. The immediate cause of the incident was the overflow of pumped fuel, due to faulty level alarms in a tank. However, reports into the incident revealed several examples of poor practice on the site. An incident response unit attended the Buncefield fire, and its forklift truck proved invaluable for moving large containers of foam to where they were needed.
Outside the UK, serious chemical incidents are more common. In August 2015 massive explosions in the port of Tianjin in China caused more than 170 deaths, and led to significant contamination. It has been suggested that incorrect use of water by poorly trained firefighters tackling a fire on the site was one of the causes of the explosion. Adding water to the industrial chemical calcium carbide leads to the formation of explosive acetylene gas. In addition to calcium carbide, the site included huge quantities of explosive nitrate fertilizers, as well as toxic sodium cyanide. It is doubtful whether the full story of the explosions will ever be known. The disaster is a reminder that ‘freedom from regulation’ and a lack of emphasis on the training and preparedness of the emergency services can lead to devastating consequences.
Guidance on incidents involving hazardous substances
The fire and rescue service has published lengthy guidance on incidents involving hazardous substances. The guidance advises emergency services to approach a major incident carefully (upwind), establish a hazard zone encompassing any potential hazard, and if necessary an exclusion zone where nobody is allowed to enter. Details of how to carry out risk assessments are given.
The guidelines detail interim decontamination procedures that can be used, if necessary, prior to arrival of contamination incident response units. It is suggested that two fire vehicles are parked in parallel and a makeshift shower unit formed between them. It is recommended that hoses are used on low power as showers.
However the guidelines point out some of the limitations of such interim procedures, such as limited protective equipment, no ability to warm water (important if treating injured people in the middle of winter), no re-robing clothing for people post decontamination, no provision to collect run-off water, and the potential to contaminate vehicles. Although this is not addressed in the guidelines, it is quite possible that fire vehicles would not be available to make makeshift showers, as they might well be actively involved in putting out fires.
Possible consequences of the withdrawal of incident response units
The incidence response units are important in dealing with chemical incidents. The toxic chemical detectors enable a rapid decisions on what level of protective equipment is required, and may also have a bearing on the decision on whether to let a fire burn out, or risk firefighters’ lives to tackle it. If a fire is producing quantities of toxic smoke or vapour that threaten lives elsewhere, allowing it to burn out may not be an option. In the absence of the sufficient information, the first firefighters on the scene of a major incident may feel that they are obliged to risk quenching the flames, even if it proves later that the fire could have been safely left to burn.
Lack of specialised protective clothing and decontamination showers may have serious consequences if a large number of people suffer chemical or radiological contamination. In the absence of specialized equipment and prompt emergency clean up, pollution from an incident is more likely to occur, since it may take longer to stem any leaks of chemicals. A speedy spill response can often prevent widespread pollution.
It is worrying that major decisions on emergency provision appear to have been taken on the basis of reducing the immediate cost of equipment expiry, rather than after a considered strategic review. The government seem to be taking a calculated risk in decreasing the number of incident response units. It may be that they are lucky, and that no adverse consequences occur. However, in the unfortunate event of a major chemical incident occurring in one of the areas from which the vehicles are being withdrawn, the government may come to regret their decision.
Fire and Rescue Service, ‘Operational Guidance: Incidents involving hazardous materials’, 2012, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/15020/GRA_Hazmatt_Manual_COMBINED.pdf
HSE Website, ‘The fire at Hickson and Welch Limited, Castleford. 21st September 1992,’ http://www.hse.gov.uk/comah/sragtech/casehickwel92.htm
COMAH, ‘Buncefield: Why did it happen?’ http://www.hse.gov.uk/comah/buncefield/buncefield-report.pdf
Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, ‘Buncefield: Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s Review of the Fire Response’, 2006, The Stationery Office. https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Buncefield.html?id=5rlIM0Q1E64C
BBC News website. ‘China Explosions: What we know about what happened in Tianjin’, 17th August 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-33844084