Chemical companions

Published:  11 June, 2009

Where do responders turn to when they need immediate hazmat advice?

Because chemical incidents don’t just occur during the hours of nine to five, the National Chemical Emergency Centre, based in Harwell, near Oxford in the UK, provides a global 24-hour response service for companies and blue light organisations who face chemical emergencies. Richard Shreeve, Sales Manager for the company, explains that the NCEC is staffed 24 hours a day by a dedicated team of Emergency Responders, consisting of experienced and accredited chemists from different backgrounds.

“We at the NCEC help to protect public, property and the environment with the advice we provide. The Centre was established in the Seventies, after a nasty hazardous materials (HazMat) incident on the M6 motorway (UK) in which a member of the public died. At that time, there was no centralised back-up system to support the emergency services when they were confronted with a HazMat incident and they were unable to obtain the necessary assistance from the consignor or shipper of the goods. The NCEC was set up in this specific location because the required level of expertise was available here, and because our parent company, environmental consultancy AEA, was still a government body at that time.” 

Chemsafe – a national approach

The NCEC is a key resource for the UK’s Chemsafe scheme. This scheme has been developed to provide a rapid and co-ordinated response that minimises the adverse affects following a chemical incident during transport. Companies can voluntarily submit their Safety Data Sheets (SDS) to NCEC to support Chemsafe, which is supported by the Chemical Industries Association and is an integral part of the chemical industry's Responsible Care initiative. It is also consistent with the objectives of Cefic's (European Chemical Industry Council) International Chemical Environment (ICE) programme.

Chemsafe incident response incorporates the following recognised stages:

Level 1 is the provision of telephone advice at the time of an incident

Level 2 involves a specialist visiting the actual incident and providing advice at the scene

Level 3 consists of providing practical assistance.

NCEC operates Chemsafe Level 1 and the blue light services can call the emergency line for specialist advice from NCEC’s Emergency Response Team at any time.  NCEC can also initiate a Level 2/3 response by providing the details of recognised contractors taken from their own worldwide database. 

Bill Atkinson, Head of Emergency Response explains, “At the time of a call we listen very carefully to what the people on the other end of the line describe, and our personnel have been trained to ask the right questions to understand what the risks are in relation to these – often distressing – situations.  Using our resources we can rapidly provide them with advice (not just data) on PPE, what actions to take, disposal etc.  The advice is given clearly and concisely and nearly always helps to reduce the time it takes to resolve an incident.” Atkinson adds, “In addition to the hundreds of thousands of SDS that we hold on our system we can refer to our emergency response database, Chemdata, which is updated and expanded on a daily basis and holds essential information on how to handle over 35,000 different substances.  All the fire and rescue services in the UK and others around the world use Chemdata. Many large production sites – especially those with their own emergency response teams – also rely on it.” Chemdata, he adds, is available in a variety of languages and available to buy as software that can be installed on a laptop or desktop computer, a network or on a PDA.

 Emergency response for industry

Manufacturers and suppliers of chemicals often find it difficult to meet their legal and duty of care obligations to provide emergency response advice using their internal resources, and NCEC’s Carechem 24 helps industry meet these requirements.  Subscribers to the service are provided with a dedicated telephone number they can display on their SDS, product labels, transport documents, etc.  Anyone can call the number to obtain advice on how to handle an incident, however large or small.  “We operate Carechem 24 on behalf of our clients”, says Shreeve, “and we integrate our procedures with those of the organisation’s own emergency response plan. Carechem 24 gives our clients peace of mind, helps them to overcome the difficulties of providing 24-hour advice and can reduce their costs.”  

NCEC’s Emergency Responders handle around 4,000 calls from the public, emergency services and commercial organisations every year. The scope of the response also promotes the continuous development of the NCEC’s response team.

According to Atkinson, it is an extremely robust scheme because there is always someone in the call room 365 days a year and 24-hours a day. “Our operators are all qualified chemists from different professional backgrounds who have undergone very stringent training, in order for them to handle calls appropriately. We have taught them to think outside the box and they can help people with basic product advice as well as with handling a major chemical spill. We have a phone system that is independent from the rest of the organisation, in order to provide us with the resilience we need.”

Carechem 24 covers the whole spectrum of chemical advice, from simple First Aid to fires involving bulk chemical shipments.  As Shreeve explains, the types of chemical incident that NCEC gets involved with range from dogs eating slug pallets to major events such as the Buncefield explosion and the MSC Napoli (a UK-flagged container ship that was deliberately grounded after she ran into difficulty in the English Channel on 18 January 2007). 

Carechem 24 is not just focussed in the UK, however. The international service is available to cover Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.  “The unique way in which the service is delivered draws on language recognition experts and enables us to provide the advice in the language of the caller through a translator, without breaking the call,” explains Shreeve. 

In addition to Carechem 24, the NCEC also offers a specialised service to assist those dealing with incidents at sea. Carechem Marine is a dedicated response service for the maritime industry covering both bulk and container vessels. Depending on the nature of the incident NCEC’s ChemSIS spill modelling software can be used to help determine the appropriate response. 

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