Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Fear Factor

Sometimes You Get Lucky with Hydrogen,
But Mostly Not


I was in the front office of a 10 acre compressed gas production and transfilling facilty when an agitated man burst in the front door screaming, "What's the number for 911?"

The man was a production technologist with a Master's Degree in Chemistry. He was a trained emergency responder with special training emphasis on the handling of toxic, corrosive, oxidizing, and/or flammable materials. He had just run from the back building at the furtherest perimeter line past four other buildings to get to the front office. Each of these buildings had a phone. In fact, he had a radio phone clipped to his belt. He could have called at the office and/or emergency number at any time. Yet he sprinted to the front of the complex to ask his bizarre question.

What happened to drive this otherwise intelligent and responsible man over the brink?

A jumbo tube trailer of hydrogen was stored at the back of the facility, and it developed a leak. If not properly grounded, such a situation can result in a static ignition- and that's exactly what happened.

For those of you who haven't had the experience, a hydrogen flame is odorless and virtually invisible, and such a flame can result in serious consequences.

The individual we're discussing had been slightly burned by that flame as he approached the tube trailer to try and determine the location of the leak was that was causing the hissing noise. In a facility loaded with gas detection equipment, posted with safety warnings, safety equipment, and properly boundaried, he approached the situation hot zone without so much as a gas monitor. Why would an educated, highly trained individual do such a thing?

When he realilzed that he was dealing with a hydrogen fire and potential explosion, all of his training flew straight out his mental window and he was reduced to the status of a frightened amateur. How could this have happened? Could it have been anticipated?

We train, and train, and train. Why is it that sometimes it just doesn't hold?

I consulted with psychiatrist Dr. Michel Farivar, MD, who told me that, although that it is a complex issue with many facets to be discussed, he did wish to emphasize one thing of particular importance: that psychological screening should be required and enforced for emergency responders. He also pointed out that emergency responder training should anticipate and preemptively prepare the trainees for those areas of potential "fear-freeze" that could prevent them from performing well under pressure.

In our next posting, we'll explore these issues in greater depth with Dr. Farivar and also ask for input and direction from one of the most well respected Hazmat trainers in the business.