Boston Fire Department Executes Coordinated HAZMAT Response

In a tragic accident Wednesday night, a man died in a South Boston Seaport District seafood warehouse due to a large ammonia leak. Boston Police shut down the area, with a shelter-in-place order and traffic restrictions shortly after the leak began as a precautionary measure.Four workers were able to escape the fumes, but when firefighters attempted to reach a worker who was on a second floor stairwell, they were pushed back due to the fumes.  Boston Firefighters then donned Level A fully encapsulated hazmat suits with supplied air, and prepared a carefully coordinated entry into the building.Selecting personal protective equipment (PPE) in a hazardous material response operation is key to ensuring the safety of responders. In order to select the correct PPE you must first identify the hazards or potential hazards and the route of contact with the responder; inhalation, skin contact, ingestion, etc. Ammonia uses the available moisture on your skin, eyes, mouth and nose to form ammonium hydroxide which causes cell and tissue death. The corrosive ammonia fumes cause burning of the respiratory tract which can lead to irritation and inflammation of the pulmonary system, and high levels can cause respiratory distress or failure.Even though the aroma of ammonia is very pungent initially, with prolonged exposure you will experience “olfactory fatigue”, meaning you may no longer smell it even if the levels remain the same. Unfortunately this can prompt you to think that the ammonia has dissipated, when you are still being exposed.Ammonia is commonly used for refrigeration in large cold storage facilities, like this one in the Seaport District. The tank that leaked in the warehouse held about 5,400 pounds of ammonia. No one has commented yet on the cause of the leak, but OSHA, Boston Police, Boston Fire Investigators and Suffolk District Attorney’s office will conduct a joint investigation.Boston Fire Department followed strict protocol in their response. According to a Boston Fire tweet Wednesday night, firefighters in the Level A hazmat suits entered the building, with an equal number of firefighters in Level A hazmat suits ready and waiting outside should rescue of the first be necessary.Even in suits with supplied air, such as the Boston Fire Department used, responders could still be exposed if there were any tears or holes in the suits. So a careful inspection of the suits must be conducted before they are donned, checking over the entire suit and especially the seams.Finally, at 9:20pm the hazmat team was able to shut off the main valve and stop the ammonia leak.  Without the coordinated response of the Boston Fire and Police Departments, workers and residents in the area would have risked greater exposure.“We were devastated to learn that one of our warehouse employees has died as a result of the ammonia leak at a Stavis Seafoods warehouse,” Richard Stavis, the Stavis Seafoods’ chief executive said in a statement Wednesday. “We are thankful that four employees who were in the building at the time were able to quickly and safely evacuate.”Image courtesy of markuso at