RSB Lisbon Fire Brigade HazMat Approach


By Mr. Celso R. Baia, Professional Firefighter, Lisbon Fire Brigade, Portugal

This article is the continuation of the “RSB Lisbon fire brigade HazMat Approach: Preparedness & Response”presentation given by the author at the NCT Europe conference that took place in May 2022 in Munich, therefore following up on the content previously explained to the NCT audience.

With their origins dating back to the XIV century, the 627 years of history make que Lisbon fire brigade Regimento de Sapadores Bombeiros (RSB) the oldest and biggest fire brigade in Portugal that has been serving the city of Lisbon in times of great distress for centuries.

As a municipal fully professional fire brigade that is under the dependence of the Lisbon City Council, the aim is to guarantee the safety of a resident population and their assets of approximately 500,000 inhabitants and the 400,000 non-residents who travel in and out of the city each day. Even more, they can also mobilize resources at the request of the Portuguese National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority (ANEPC) to provide whatever response and support are necessary in any part of the country.

With an organic framework of 900 firefighters, some of its members are performing administrative tasks or otherwise occupied outside of providing emergency services, leaving less than 800 firefighters to actually respond to all emergency situations in the city.

The emergency response is guaranteed on a permanent service basis 24/7 each day of the year, through four shifts over the 24-hour workday by the 11 fire stations strategically placed throughout the around 100km2 of the city, and each responsible for a specific operational area.

Portuguese legal framework

The operational response to Hazmat/CBRNe in Portugal is legally framed through the CBRN National Operational Directive issued in October 2010. This was established by the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority(ANEPC), the Portuguese national authority in matters of emergency and civil protection, which is a central service directly administered by the state, under the supervision of the ministry of internal administration.

This Directive serves as an instrument of planning, organization, coordination, and operational command within the framework of responses to emergencies involving Hazmat/CBRNe agents defining the roles of all civil protection agents responsible for responding to these situations. The main objective is to ensure that human and technical resources are coordinated and mobilized expeditiously and effectively under a single command, where protection and assistance are required.

Operational response of the Lisbon Fire Brigade in a Hazmat incident

When dealing with emergency preparedness for Hazmat/CBRNe situations, from a fire brigade’s perspective as an institution with responsibilities in this scope, the first point that obviously must be fulfilled is following the respective existing legal framework. Secondly, that same preparedness should be able to respond to the threats and situations that were identified in the risk assessment previously made.

The city of Lisbon, despite having a smaller dimension compared to other European capitals, has some particularly associated risks. For instance, it is a city that regularly welcomes some international events such as many different summer festivals, technological summits, and conferences, which attract thousands of people to the Portuguese capital. Besides that, the fact of having an airport inside the city limits and a cargo port close to the city centre, where tons of dangerous goods are daily transferred and carried in and out by rail or road, makes Lisbon a city where the risk of unintentional and accidental Hazmat situation or even a CBRNe deliberate event is somehow always present.

In this context, the RSB Lisbon fire brigade operational response to Hazmat/CBRNe situations is provided with their Hazmat Response Team specifically trained for this purpose and comprises by default, 14 firefighters and four vehicles, but it can be activated initially with fewer resources as a reconnaissance evaluation team with a single vehicle, four operational firefighters and a team leader. This type of activation is used for all Hazmat/CBRNe events where the complexity and size of the event are unclear, or in situations requiring a preliminary recon. In practice, these teams arrive at the scene, evaluate the situation based on the earlier recon and decide if their human and technical resources are enough to deal with the problem. If not, the rest of the team that is already on stand-by at the fire station is called in to provide additional human and material resources.

When this happens and all the Hazmat Response Team is on the scene, the 14 men are divided into 4 different teams: the hot zone, decontamination, protection, and equipment teams. Each one is assigned with specific pre-defined and specific tasks, and all are managed by the most graduated firefighter that assumes the role of the team coordinator.

Over 20 years of experience in operational response to these incidents has provided the RSB Lisbon Fire Brigade with extensive knowledge in this area, alongside their School of Firefighters and regular training courses, which are provided to many other professional and volunteer fire brigades across Portugal as well as police and military forces.

Another factor that distinguishes the RSB’s Hazmat/CBRNe unit from any other civilian or military force in Portugal is the response time. Always bearing in mind that on a chemical Hazmat situation, the decisions made, and actions taken in the first few minutes of a response will often establish the character of the overall response – and ultimately its success or failure, these situations receive exactly the same response time as any regular emergency such as an urban fire or a vehicle extrication situation. A response is guaranteed upon communication from the centre receiving the distress call with the immediate dispatch of all the necessary vehicles. Moreover, a response is granted 24/7 to any operational area within Lisbon or anywhere else in Portugal.

Analyse a previous incident response

Dealing with this type of incidents for more than 2 decades, we have already faced a huge variety of different situations, each one with its own specificity and particularity. Among them, we can highlight some that somehow were slightly different from the majority and include:

-A situation involving an unknown substance inside the cargo compartment of a plane blocked in the middle of a runway on the Lisbon airport, that just by its own complexity and the entities and institutions that were involved in it had to be managed and conducted in a specific and way.

-Another one involved large quantities of a water-reactive substance on a waste treatment plant located outside Lisbon municipality that took some weeks to solve and which implied logistical and operational procedures quite different from the usual and involved many human and material resources.

-And, of course, as we could not fail to mention, the approximately 200 decontamination actions and events in the SARS-CoV-2 context, made by our HazMat response unit during the critical pandemic period between March 2020 and February 2021, on a variety of public and private sector locations from nursing homes to hostels, from schools to hospitals, that required a quick and specific adaptation of our common approach methods to situations involving biologic risk, being one of the toughest and quite demanding periods for our response team, both physically and psychologically.

Future threats: deeming the current preparedness paradigm…

We are now living and facing difficult times; the pandemic that came upon us more than 2 years ago and that we are still living through clearly showed us that our societies and our governments were not at all prepared to deal with it. Even some years ago it was already clear that the new emergent challenges we should be prepared to deal with involved the biological risk. Now when we thought that finally, our life could enter again on the path and normality that we all had been waiting for a long time with the end of the pandemic situation, almost suddenly, a war was started in Europe.

Thus, the biological threat that was daily somehow on our minds for a long time was rapidly replaced either by other concerns: the chemical hazard with the attacks on chemical industries and facilities that origin the release of huge quantities of toxic industrial chemicals or even by the radiological and nuclear risk that became present with the attacks to Ukrainian nuclear power plants, remembering us the events that happened 36 years ago with the Chernobyl accident. Alongside it, is the fear that the increasing tension could bring us to a possible escalation of events that lead to a nuclear conflict.

Who really thought that a virus could literally ‘stopped’ the whole world for so long? Or that a war could be again possible in Europe in the 21st century?

The consequences generated from a situation or accident caused by an armed conflict, deliberate or unintentional cause, do not know of any borders and can quickly reach out to neighbouring countries or even other continents.

It is the most likely that the future will bring to us a hybrid situation involving more than one risk. In this context, eventually, a new perspective and approach should also be adopted by the entities and institutions on the front line, like fire brigades. It is imperative to realize and understand that the key to overriding any possible future situation is the ability to quickly adapt the current models and response procedures for different realities or face new challenges and risks, adapting our response preparedness and focusing more and more on the importance of a multi-agency interoperability approach.

Author: Bio

Mr. Celso R. Baía, a 16-year professional firefighter on the major and oldest Portuguese fire brigade with a vast experience in all firefighting emergency and an expertise related to HazMat/CBRNe incident management and response.

He has a degree in ‘Applied Mathematics – Statistics and Operational Research’, a bachelor in ‘Safety Management and Civil Protection’ and a master’s degree in ‘Protection Against CBRNe Events’.

He is currently performing the coordination tasks of a Hazmat/CBRNe response team, also instructor and technical advisor for this area

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