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The ERG: Know What You’re Dealing With

The Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) is a resource that is published to assist emergency responders ― including tow operators ― when dealing with hazardous materials (hazmat). It is republished roughly every four years to provide users with the most current information.

Knowing about the ERG is key during the initial response phase. Along with knowing how to use it, equally important is knowing when to use it!

Anything that carries cargo.

Tow operators should always inquire, as early in the process as possible, about the cargo being carried in any cargo-carrying vehicle. This allows the driver, in the event of a cargo-related problem, to be aware of what materials could be involved at the beginning of the incident. An “incident” in this context does not mean the crash or breakdown that got the tow truck there initially, it means the operator or someone else at the scene noticing cargo spilling or dripping from the vehicle.

If the initial accident or breakdown involved the known release of hazmat, the authorities at the scene should be working with the tow operator as a fellow emergency response resource. The tow operator would also be operating under the incident command structure, so the orders to start moving the vehicle would be coordinated with the other emergency response resources working at the scene by the incident commander.

Isolate and identify

If material does start spilling or dripping from the unit being towed, the driver will need to take steps immediately. First, the driver should isolate the immediate area. It may be nothing, but the risk of exposing the driver or the public to toxic or dangerous chemicals is too great to not take immediate precautions.

Next steps for the driver are to identify the materials involved, determine the hazards associated with the materials, and take appropriate actions. This is where the ERG comes into play. The information in the ERG is intended to assist first responders by providing them an easy-to-use reference that will keep them and the public safe during the initial phase of an incident. Included in the ERG is information about:

  • Potential Hazards, including fire and explosion hazards, and health hazards.
  • Public Safety considerations, including immediate isolation instructions and distances (if applicable), necessary protective clothing, and immediate evacuation distances (if applicable).
  • Emergency Response information, including what to do if the material is burning, how to deal with a spill or leak, and first aid for anyone that has been exposed to the material.

Using the ERG

Because of its design, using the ERG is fairly easy ― provided the driver knows some basic information about the material involved. To use the ERG, it is best if the driver knows the name and/or four digit identification number for the material. If this is not available, the class of placard that is on the vehicle (or should have been on the vehicle) can be used. With any of the above information, the driver can locate the necessary information in the ERG.

When it comes to the name or identification number for the material, where would the tow operator get such information? It is available through the driver, on paperwork that is supposed to be in the cab of the vehicle. If the driver was driving, it should be visible and within the driver’s reach. If the driver was not with the vehicle, it should be on the driver’s seat or in a pouch on the driver’s door. Another potential contact is the carrier operating the vehicle (the name of the carrier should be on the door). The carrier and driver may not know what the specific material is, but they will know where they picked it up and the shipper will know what it is.

Placards are the diamond-shaped warning signs that are on the sides of a vehicle transporting either:

  • Certain hazardous materials (the really dangerous materials require placarding in any amount), or
  • A large quantity of other hazardous materials (the other hazardous materials must be placarded if the vehicle contains more than 1,000 pounds of hazardous materials).

There are several exceptions to the placarding regulations, so they cannot be relied on as a “foolproof” method of determining if a cargo-carrying vehicle contains a dangerous cargo. The shipping documentation and the driver are far more reliable. This goes back to the comment above about finding out about the cargo in the case of any cargo-carrying vehicle.

Once the tow operator has identified the material involved, the next step is using the ERG. Knowledge about the material will be used to locate the correct “guide.” The guides are the pages that provide the information discussed above.

If the placard is known, use the “Table of Placards and Initial Response,” which is on pages 16 and 17 in the white-bordered pages in the 2008 ERG, to locate the appropriate guide. If the four-digit identification number for the material is known, you would locate the guide using the yellow-bordered pages. If only the name of the material is known (make sure the spelling is right!), you would use the blue-bordered pages to locate the correct guide.

The ERG only provides “step one” in a chain of steps!

One key point about the ERG is that it is intended to only provide initial response information. The information necessary for the long-term handling of the incident is normally not found in the ERG. This includes information on how to safely contain and clean up the incident and how to dispose of contaminated materials. Other emergency responders, such as the “hazmat team,” are the ones that have access to that information.

Learn about the ERG before something goes wrong

While the ERG is fairly easy to use, ideally you do not want a tow operator you have just sent to a scene where something is dripping out of the back of the vehicle to be completely unfamiliar with the ERG. Knowing in advance what the cargo is, how to use the ERG, and what the tow operator can do are critical to effectively responding during an emergency incident.