When is fighting fire a science? Combatting hazardous materials

Fighting fire is a science. Being exacting during an emergency response approach is crucial – education and training can be the difference between success and disaster

By Talal Hashem Alnahari Alhashmi/Viewpoint

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Published: Wed 23 Nov 2022, 3:00 PM

Urban environments are messy.

Cities are large, complex and interconnected. Hazardous materials and waste continue to accumulate despite our best intentions, making efforts to mitigate risk and manage space increasingly complicated. While we strive for an eco-efficient growth pattern and ecologically beneficial urban planning, world-class emergency response will be the safeguard against those threats. The services' importance, readiness, and training are critical for an increasingly unpredictable metropolitan landscape.

While operating against a thorough risk management plan, these scenarios are deeply unpredictable. For example, there have been significant fires in warehouses, boats, shopping areas, and residential buildings in the UAE over the last few months.

This week, a fire broke out in a warehouse in Dubai’s Al Quoz industrial area. Civil Defence authorities successfully evacuated the area with no reported casualites. The fire was extinguished after several hours, though building and warehouse material has the potential to be unsafe. Burning scrap and plastics can release soot, mercury, and other toxins.

In combination with poor wiring, overloaded plug points, hazardous materials, and high temperatures, fires like this are particularly common throughout the UAE during the hotter months. According to the Ministry of the Interior, nine people died, and 89 were injured in over 2,000 building fires in the UAE last year. The ministry said 2,090 building fires were recorded, increasing from 1,968 fires in 2020.

These events highlight why comprehensive, extensive emergency response and firefighting training is critical to ensuring a positive outcome. While chemical fires are less common, they are exponentially more dangerous as they blow toxic materials out of the initial fire zone.

Responding quickly and efficiently is crucial. Hazardous materials fires are often considered the most challenging and, if not adequately addressed, the most damaging and dangerous; however, these emergency response skills are perishable. Contrary to the adage, 'it's like riding a bike,' abstaining from cycling for years on end will result in a less competent rider – emergency response training is something we must consistently maintain.

Preparation for chemical fires is almost more important than knowing how to react on-site, as each chemical will respond differently to containment methods. This method is called pre-fighting and refers to the education, inspection, administrative preparation, and planning involved in storing hazardous materials and training for emergency response.

Proper inspection and labelling can provide firefighters with the information to address an emergency correctly. For example, a lack of warning to the firefighters managing the Beirut fire in Lebanon of August 2020 led to many deaths and the port's explosion. Without knowing the nature of the materials in the warehouse, they were unable to choose the proper containment method; by using water to douse the flames, firefighters allowed the aging, hazardous ammonium nitrate to destabilise further ¬– partially contributing to its explosion.

Incorrectly fighting a fire causes loss of control and deterioration, resulting in serious consequences. For example, putting water on certain burning materials is akin to creating a poison, giving materials fuel to expand and spread due to a chemical reaction. Sometimes fighting the fire is too dangerous, and responders must resort to evacuation and securing a perimeter. Alternative containment methods include smothering fires with sand, foam, or powder, which can be challenging to maintain in large quantities.

During fire response, a separate command and control team will often be ready with information regarding weather patterns, potential variables, and various research points so first responders have every piece of information available. This way, they may better prepare for building construction, fire development stages, rate of spread, rain, winds, or tides when addressing an emergency.

A special suit is required when responding to fires containing certain materials. The Gulf summer heat combined with a sweltering fire can be dangerous, forcing firefighters to spend no longer than 15 or 20 minutes on response. Properly training responders is vital, as they must work in short rotations.

When hazardous materials burn, chemicals are released into the atmosphere, water, and respiratory systems, harming public health and the environment. Knowing how to approach a chemical fire requires specific scientific knowledge; if responders are adequately prepared, the outcome can be life-saving.

Fighting fire is a science. Being exacting during an emergency response approach is crucial – education and training can be the difference between success and disaster.

Talal Hashem Alnahari Alhashmi is chief executive officer of Jaheziya, an Edge entity, the leading provider of emergency firefighting and rescue services in the UAE. Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the newspaper’s policy.

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