Posted August 28, 2004     Photos by Fritz Rethage     [HHFD Index]

Mass Decontamination
[Group 2 photos][Group 3 photos]

The radio crackles: "There has been a contamination of unknown substance at ...."  Office building, factory or stadium -- regional first responders are trained to handle the decontamination of large numbers of people.

Carlstadt, Hasbrouck Heights, Little Ferry, Moonachie, Wallington and Wood-Ridge Fire Departments*  participated in this hands-on mass decontamination exercise. The training was held on August 22, 2004 at a Route 46 office complex parking lot  in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ. Classroom instruction preceded this drill.  This course is given to every fire department in Northern New Jersey and with this common training -- all departments can mobilize in highly-coordinated, scalable efforts.

Mass decontamination removes lethal contaminates from a large number of victims to increase their survivability and to reduce the threat of secondary contamination.   By comparison, a technical decontamination is the regimented method used by hazardous materials teams and may employ the use of solutions to clean or neutralize a chemical product.

With first responders handling mass decontamination, it frees up hazardous material technicians to take more specific action. A mass decontamination can be run without definitive agent identification. 

Upon arrival at the scene, first responders first assess the situation and set up accordingly. It is crucial to communicate with the victims by providing reassurance and describing the decontamination procedures.

The operation is positioned upwind, uphill and upstream of the event.  The basic technique is to set two engine companies parallel about 12 to 20 feet apart with pump panels facing outward. Apparatus should not be running (to avoid carbon monoxide buildup) and utilize hydrant pressure or have pressure supplied by another engine away from the decontamination area (see photos below).  Ladder companies can also be utilized either with the pumpers or as a stand alone unit (see group 3 photos).

Nothing can be done about the runoff created by mass decontamination procedure. The EPA stipulates that priority should be placed on saving lives.  If possible, operations should be positioned uphill so that the contaminates run back into the affected area.

A mass decontamination corridor is formed by placing ladders between apparatus and covers attached to provide privacy.  Hoses are set up with "wide angle fog spray" at 60 gpm -- similar to a strong shower (see group 2 photos).  Additional units can be set-up for larger numbers of victims and units can be created for male, female and family. Up to 400 people per hour can be decontaminated  with this configuration.

Removal of clothing is the essential first step.  Once the clothing has been removed, the victim will remove over 80% of the contaminate after a liquid contamination, and nearly 100% after a vapor contamination.

Victims disrobe down to their undergarments.  The clothing is then bagged.  Victims enter the corridor and slowly pass through the "shower"  for maximum flushing with water .  Victims are directed to scrub themselves from one to three minutes using laundry detergent or household bleach.  After exiting the corridor, victims can wear inverted trash bags with holes made for head and arms for modesty purposes.

Decontamination during colder temperature require special consideration to avoid hypothermia.

Injured need decontamination prior to being treated and transported to a medical facility.  Hospitals will close if patients contaminate their emergency rooms thus negating the benefits of hospital access.

As much clothing as possible is removed from the patient. Victims may require decontamination while they are on stretchers.   Once decontaminated,  ambulatory victims are to be moved to a safe refuge upwind and with access to the operation.  This removes them from contaminates, allows for better communication and observation. 

EMS personnel at the scene treat patients according to symptoms.  Triage will sort priority transportation.    Those not injured or symptomatic are moved to shelter for further evaluation.

It is expected at least a 5:1 ratio of unaffected to affected causalities.  Not all exposed will be contaminated.  The number of people exposed is directly affected by the type of release, confinement of release (inside or outside) proximity of people to release, duration of release, amount, concentration and purity of product and release mechanism.

This drill was limited to chemical and biological agents and did not address other potential WMD such as explosives, incendiary devices or nuclear weapons. 

The entire incident is a crime scene requiring that the proper evidence collection and chain of custody be maintained.  Patients could be suspects and their belongings may be evidence.  Removal of clothing in the decon procedure has the additional advantage of detecting weapons or a secondary device.
[Photos of Hasbrouck Heights Police Department during hazardous first response training.]

The trainer was Larry Rauch, Coordinator of Safety Programs at Bergen County Law & Public Safety Institute in Mahwah, NJ. 

* South Bergen Mutual Aid Association Zone Two
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Sources include:
FireEngineering.com --  Mass Decontamination: Dispelling the Mystery by Mark Edie and Steve Wood
Firehouse.com & mfri.org (Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute) -- Mass decontamination for First Responders: Drill of the month for March 2003 by Clarence "Smiley" White
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[Group 2 photos][Group 3 photos]


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Training orientation

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Setting up hoses

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Adjusting the water pressure

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Trainer Larry Rauch provided a review of set up

[Group 2 photos][Group 3 photos]
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