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Supreme Court & Haz Mat Response?

     I was involved in a recent court case that may very well affect the way you respond to hazardous materials incidents! The case involved a fire run from my station on a report of water flooding a basement via an electrical supply breaker box. Ordinarily this results from a simple broken water feed inside a residence. All that is generally required is to kill the electrical main, shut-down the water supply, and call in the contractors/landlords. This case turned out to be quite different.

     Firstly, the units in question were comprised of common walled multiple apartment/condo type. By itself, multiple dwelling units are given the highest priority in a bedroom community due to the fact of high life threat/hazard. Attempting to evacuate many potential victims from a fire situation is challenging for any residential Fire Department. Second, multiple floors and the time of day, {such as in my case} may elevate the severity of this hazard. While these hazards are high, the addition of possible electrocution to personnel can compound the issue.

     The caller indicated that the neighbor who was not at home had a broken waterline inside their shared wall that was heard to be spilling to the basement. In this case it was believed that the water supply lines were dangerously close to the apartment units electrical connections. Unable to reach their maintenance person, the landlord advised calling the fire department. Upon arrival, this story was related to me, and I made the decision to enter the unit in question to mitigate the hazard.

     Without creating any damage to the unit, one of my smaller firefighters was able to climb in through a smaller window to unlock the exterior door for us. With this accomplished, I proceeded towards the basement where the hazard was located. Once finding the electrical panels and water feed lines, I discovered no leakage or water damage, and no electrical problems. Upon exiting the basement, my men and I walked past a hydroponic garden with 48 Marijuana plants growing very healthy in their underground garden. This information was transferred to the police department.

     The subsequent court case decided to pursue the firefighter issue of entry into private property in the event of an emergency without obtaining permission. I testified that any unknown emergency the Fire Department is summoned to must be investigated BEFORE we release the property; otherwise there is dereliction of duty issues involved for the firefighter. You can research this issue at and the defendant party was fighting for the clients’ ability to have the evidence regarded as inadmissible from this practice.

     I defended my legal authority to enter and search during a potential emergency hazard with an appropriate metaphor. Do you realize that no one knows why a knot/rope breaks? They know how, but not why. To explain this phenomenon it would require a knot specialist, a rope manufacturer, a mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer studying this challenge for probably six {6} months or more, with critical equipment, just to understand the dynamic process. Let alone find an answer. The moral of this story is that simple things sometimes require intense investigation. This is also true with hazard mitigation, sometimes a straightforward answer is not available and you have to look a little deeper to find a solution to the problem. We cannot correct what we cannot find.

     As you can read from the above link, the issue has ballooned into a civil rights issue of illegal search and seizure verses probable cause. This issue now becomes much more important to the emergency community at large. When applying this proposed change to hazardous materials response the issue intensifies.

     Imagine a response to unoccupied property in your community for a hazardous materials spill. While Haz-Mat crews must be given permission to operate on private property, the Federal mandates clearly give us the right to mitigate hazards for the public safety upon unoccupied property within our jurisdiction. What if we now had to wait and allow a greater volume of release while waiting for a warrant at 0300hrs? The potential for a large scale release and long term environmental contamination in this scenario is real! Imagine a tanker roll-over leaking its poisonous contents into the earth eventually reaching a drinking aquifer. By the time the warrant arrived, the entire trailer could already be in the drinking water supply! The possibilities for wide scale contamination while awaiting “legal-beagle paper-pushers” could be catastrophic!

     The majority of hazardous materials releases are mitigated within an hour, at least in terms of preventing the release of the remaining contents of most transportation containers. This is termed “containment” with a transfer follow-up. Would we now have to wait for a warrant for the recent initial fire attack on the Hazel Park/I-75 flammable liquid Tanker Fire of 2008, from the Governor just to get the OK to use water on his free-way? Would water-way responses allow further environmental damage from oil company spills just to receive a warrant from the AHJ {Authority Having Jurisdiction}?

      I believe the answers to this question are NO. Local Law Enforcement and Fire Protection should not have their hands tied over potential emergencies to satisfy legal loop-holes from criminal activities. The only reason we function successfully is due to our speed of response. With the addition of “loop-holes” we greatly diminish our success rate. Fire doubles every 20 seconds! How much more destruction from hazardous materials or law enforcement activities would double every 20 seconds you have to wait for a warrant. The simple math proves this increase would stagger the society we protect.

                                                   Haz Mat Mike 

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