At the Ready

At the Ready

Be prepared for common, catastrophic and emerging campus hazardous materials incidents

An important area of emergency preparedness for campus settings involves appropriate procedures for both internal and external hazardous materials incidents. These events can impact K–12 schools, institutions of higher learning and other campus settings in any region of the country, at any time, and without warning.

Campus Operations

Unfortunately, many campus organizations are not properly prepared for these disruptive— and, in some cases, deadly—incidents. Catastrophic but extremely rare active shooter events garner widespread, inaccurate and alarmist media coverage that makes them seem far more common than is actually the case. However, hazardous materials incidents affecting campus settings are not only more common, but as hundreds of events from around the world demonstrate, they can be even more deadly than the most lethal campus shootings the world has seen to date.

As one tragic example, a train accident near Ryongchon, North Korea, killed an estimated 3,000 people in April 2004. Available information indicates that every student and employee at an elementary school located several miles from the crash site was killed in this event. While regulatory requirements and safety practices in the United States are often better than those in many developing nations, tragedies here demonstrate that the United States is not immune to catastrophic hazardous materials incidents.

External hazardous materials incidents can result from over-the-road, rail, shipping, manufacturing, farming and clandestine drug manufacturing accidents, These and other incidents. Adding to the risk posed by accidents, the potential for acts of violence using hazardous materials as weapons is of growing concern. American intelligence and law enforcement agencies have expressed concerns about the efforts of violent extremist groups to recruit chemists in recent years. The possibility of hazardous materials incidents inside buildings should not be ignored, either. Internal hazardous materials incidents can result from careless storage or handling of cleaning solutions and chemicals, from laboratory accidents and from intentional acts.

Use of Hazardous Materials

For example, in the 1980s, university students learned that they could empty out the change in vending machines by stealing mercury from campus science labs and pouring it into the coin slots. These incidents created a nightmare for campus officials due to the requirements of hazardous materials cleanup. In another example, a North Carolina school district was forced to use a $15 million construction bond after a high-school student used chemicals from an unsecured chemistry lab to start a near total-loss fire. Because of school’s age, the district’s insurance would not cover the full cost of construction to renovate the school. Many taxpayers were not happy to bear the resulting tax burden because a teacher failed to lock a storage cabinet, classroom door and the door leading to the storage area.

The use of caustic chemicals to carry out “dosing” attacks by splashing acid or other chemicals on victims has become an emerging problem in countries where these types of attacks have previously been rare events. Though quite common for decades in many regions of the Middle East, Asia, the Subcontinent and parts of Africa, these devastating acts of violence have been relatively rare in Western countries until London was hit with more than 1,500 such attacks in less than 36 months.

While (fortunately) still relatively uncommon in the United States, persons affiliated with a major anarchist movement have been disseminating instructions on the use of acids to carry out attacks.

Attacks on a reporter, police officers, counter-protesters and others have already taken place during violent protests in multiple American communities. As multi-victim acid attacks have occurred in K–12 schools in Vietnam, Afghanistan, the United Kingdom and other countries, there is growing concern among experts that one or two highly publicized attacks of this type in the United States could result in the type of “contagion effect” that has been documented as contributing to the increase of mass casualty shootings. An Internet search for “acid attack victim photos” will reveal hundreds of truly disturbing images that illustrate how horrific these attacks can be.

As the use of firearms, vehicle ramming, arson and other popular attack methods on American campuses has demonstrated, one or two such attacks could cause serious gaps in emergency plans. Active assailant training programs and drill approaches utilized by many campus organizations could become obsolete in a matter of days. For these and other reasons, campus organizations should consider availing themselves of the free assistance provided by local and state emergency management agencies and local The service staff when developing and updating emergency plans.

A Deadly Tendency

One potential deadly tendency has been for some organizations to combine severe weather, earthquake and hazardous materials incident sheltering into a single sheltering protocol. As the proper action steps for sheltering are significantly different in each of these types of incidents, this approach could easily result in many easily preventable casualties. For example, while it can sometimes be safer to move staff and students into a basement or lower-level floor when sheltering for a tornado warning, doing so for an external hazardous materials incident is extremely dangerous because many chemicals sink to the lowest level in a building.

A particularly important aspect of hazardous materials incident emergency procedures involves the speed and accuracy of communications. Automated building emergency communications systems with pre-recorded messages and, more commonly, emergency phone applications are increasingly common approaches for campus organizations. However, while it may seem easy to just “push a button” in an emergency, preparing people to use these systems under extreme stress is not so easy.

One of the observations from more than 8,000 controlled, realtime, scripted, audio and video crisis simulations conducted at schools in 45 states revealed that most school staff were unable to use these systems properly when placed under even mild stress. Most commonly, staff pressed the wrong icon for the emergency scenario they were presented with. For example, when presented with a scenario of an approaching tornado, school staff often pressed the icon that would trigger either a lockdown or, even worse, an emergency evacuation—either of which could result in catastrophic loss of life in an actual emergency.

By using the all-hazards approach with free assistance from local and state fire service and emergency management personnel, any campus organization can develop enhanced prevention and preparedness approaches for hazardous materials risks. This approach can help prevent common pitfalls such as those discussed here.

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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