Here's a closer look at the burned-out contents of a shipping container that once held 22 tons of swimming pool sanitizer. - Photo courtesy of Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service.

Here's a closer look at the burned-out contents of a shipping container that once held 22 tons of swimming pool sanitizer.

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service.

Individually, the palm-sized tablets used to sanitize swimming pools aren’t particularly scary. Used as the last step in the pool-cleaning process, the tricholorisocyanuric acid slowly dissolves in the water, releasing an agent commonly found in bleach and disinfectants.

However, OSHA's Materials Safety Data Sheet for this item is a cavalcade of don’ts and keep aways. Do not eat, drink, or smoke when using this product. Keep away from heat, sparks, and open flames. Avoid breathing any dust left behind.

Now, imagine you have enough tricholorisocyanuric acid in one place to sanitize every pool in Vancouver all the way to British Columbia Day next August. And, for no apparent reason, the nasty little pucks begin to decompose all at once.

This was the situation the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service found itself in March 2015 when a shipping container at Port Metro Vancouver began belching acrid fumes in tremendous volume. Inside the container, 22 tons of pool cleaning tablets rapidly oxidized into a greenish-yellow cloud, the like of which once ranked among the most lethal weapons of World War 1.

Vancouver is the fourth most dense city in North America behind New York, San Francisco, and Mexico City. An immediate shelter-in-place order covered nearly 50,000 people. For the next five hours, citizens were pinned down until firefighters came to grips with the ugly haze enveloping the third-largest port in North America.

Access became the main problem. The cargo container, neatly tucked into a pyramid stacked four containers high, stood blocked at both ends. Even with access, water could only be useful if the interior of the container could be flooded. Piecemeal moisture threatened to further fuel the reaction.

With the container visibly bulging from building pressure, firefighters ordered a 4,000-foot exclusion zone that brought much of the port to a standstill. Finding a forklift operator willing to move the surrounding containers took nearly four hours, not counting time for a crash course on breathing apparatus.

Two opinions exist for any firefighter responding to an emergency – fight it or leave it alone. The water-reactive contents dictated extreme discretion. Nineteen hours after the first report of trouble, responders finally opened the container and snuffed out what little remained of the ruined pool cleaner.

Unlike investigating a fire, the hazmat incident at Port Vancouver left no evidence as to what started the runaway decomposition. The weather had been dry and sunny, ruling out humidity. Four other containers with the same cargo unloaded at the same time showed no sign of premature decomposition.

All told, port operations, save for a single terminal building, remained suspended nearly 27 hours. Full operations did not resume for more than two days.

The July 1, 2015 fire presented one of Canada’s most well-equipped fire departments with several not-so-common challenges that every fire department and emergency response team should review.

Given a scenario in which you’ve been dispatched to a sealed container with an unidentified product with visible off-gassing drifting towards a heavily populated area surrounding your plant. Here are several questions to ask:

  • What pre-emergency plans do you have in place to address this type of incident?
  • What would be your tactical priorities and primary strategy for first arriving personnel?
  • What systems do you have in place to communicate evacuation orders or a shelter-in-place directive to residents?
  • Has your plant initiated a public outreach program to educate the surrounding communities of what each of these orders means?
  • What level of training and equipment do your personnel have for hazardous materials incidents involving exothermic reactions?
  • Do you have access to trained heavy equipment operators capable of working/operating in personnel protective equipment including breathing apparatus?
  • What pre-emergency planning have you instituted to support your response efforts as it pertains to product identification, scene access and overall reconnaissance?

These are just a few of the challenges faced by the members of the Vancouver Fire Department back in 2015. Given the value of hindsight, the question is, would you and your response team be properly prepared for a comparable incident?