Team Profile: Lisbon Fire Brigade HazMat Response


By Celso Baía

Dating back 628 years to the XIV century, the Regimento de Sapadores Bombeiros (RSBL) is Lisbon’s full-time professional fire brigade. It is one of the oldest Portuguese public institutions and the oldest and biggest fire brigade in Portugal. Under the jurisdiction of Lisbon City Hall and despite its main mission being to guarantee the safety of the city’s people and property, this institution’s own history, national dimension, and legal responsibilities extend much further its scope of duty and commitment to the whole country.

The RSBL’s different specialized response teams such as the HazMat, Urban Search and Rescue (USAR), Diving or Cynotechnical teams are always available for any eventual request made by the Portuguese National Civil Protection Authority (ANEPC) – the national authority in matters of emergency and civil protection. They can either compose a Portuguese international task force for international missions under the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism, as happened recently for instance in the earthquake in Turkey, or respond to any national situation, as often happens particularly with the HazMat Response Team.

Formally created in 1998 this specialized response team has more than 25 years of experience in operational response to HazMat incidents. During this time, many things have changed, from the equipment used to the training methods and even the actual operational response procedures, leading to a very distinct and unique emergency preparedness.

Besides that, the operational response to these events is obviously in accordance with the existing legal framework issued through a national directive established by the ANEPC that is applicable to the whole country and to all organizations and entities that compete and cooperate for protection and relief. This directive more specifically concerns the response actions to possible emergency situations involving HazMat/CBRNe agents.

In this context, the Lisbon Fire Brigade’s HazMat response team comprises a total of 16 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 situations where the complexity and size of the event is unclear, or in situations requiring a preliminary recon. In practice, when arriving at the scene the team leader quickly evaluates the situation based on an earlier recon and then decides if the human and technical resources are sufficient to deal with the problem. If not, and the situation demands it, the rest of the team which is already on standby, is then activated to the scene providing additional human and material resources.

© Regimento de Sapadores Bombeiros – Lisboa 

Structure of the Team

On scene and by default, the complete response team of 16 men is divided into four different teams: the ‘hot zone’, ‘decontamination’, ‘protection’, and ‘equipment’ teams. Each one of them has their own team leader and is assigned to perform specific pre-defined tasks. The whole response team is managed by the highest ranked and qualified firefighter who assumes the role of the ‘Team Coordinator’.

In sum, the teams are differentiated by the tasks and actions assigned to each one:  

  • The ‘hotzone team is the one that has the responsibility to perform all the tasks needed inside the Hot Zone (also designated Red Zone) and is the only team that can enter this area.
  • The ‘decontamination team’ operates in the Warm Zone (also designated Yellow Zone) and must establish the decontamination corridor and provide decontamination for the ‘hotzone team’ and for all the equipment that was inside this area and so, assumed by default as contaminated.
  • Next, the ‘protection team’ guarantees the minimum safe conditions inside the Hot Zone before and during the presence of the ‘hotzone team’ in this area.
  • Finally, the ‘equipment team’, working in the Cold Zone (also designated Green Zone), ensures the preparation of all the equipment needed for the other 3 teams before and during the whole operation. Depending on the situation itself, in some events where one or more of these 4 teams are not eventually needed, the elements that would compose it are assigned to the other remaining teams. 

What sets RSBL’s HazMat/CBRNe response team apart from other Portuguese civilian or military forces is its short response time. Acknowledging that the decisions and actions taken in the initial moments of responding to such events significantly shape the overall response and determine its ultimate success or failure, our team ensures an equivalent response time like any routine emergency, such as an urban fire. A swift response is guaranteed, starting from the moment a distress call is received at our communications center to the immediate dispatch of all necessary vehicles. Furthermore, this 24/7 response time commitment extends to any operational area within Lisbon or anywhere else in the country.

© Regimento de Sapadores Bombeiros – Lisboa 

Equipment Inventory

Portugal is currently one of the 27 member states of the European Union and therefore all the many normative standards followed such as Personal Protective Equipment categorization or exposure limit values are in accordance with European standards issued through many Directives and Regulations. In this context, regarding different equipment used for responding to HazMat/CBRNe events, the following is a selection of what we have available to our response team: 

• All types of category III chemical protective clothing from Type 1a to Type 6. 

• A broad spectrum of gas detection equipment with different types of sensors for the detection of oxygen (O2), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen sulphide (H2S), potentially explosive atmospheres (%LEL), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3), chlorine (Cl2), hydrogen (H2), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), and photoionization detection (PID) for volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

• Detection equipment for chemical warfare agents based on flame spectroscopy technology, and field identification equipment for liquid/solid and gas/vapour substances using Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy technology. 

• Electronic personal dosimeters and radiometers that allow for the detection of both Alpha and Beta particles and electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays and Gamma. 

• A complete VOX full-duplex radio communication system fulfilling the ATEX Directive.  

• A portable weather station with a selection of software for contamination plume modelling based on different chemical databases. 

• Different types of pumps for racking operations with the relevant earthing and bounding accessories, spill containment and confinement equipment, and much more.

Always adhering to the fundamental principle that responding to such events with maximum safety and effectiveness requires more than just possessing cutting-edge equipment, a well-prepared team completely acquainted with the necessary equipment, proficient in its usage through regular practice, and engaged in realistic training scenarios, is vital for the success on any mission.

Humanity finds itself in complex and dangerous times, grappling with two ongoing conflicts: one in Europe, marked by the war between Russia and Ukraine, and another in the Middle East involving Israel and Hamas, with the participation of numerous other states.

Adopting the misconception that these events, occurring at a considerable geographical distance from our countries, won’t impact nations further afield could potentially be the least prudent approach one could take. Indeed, such conflicts can serve as a catalyst for the escalation of radical extremism, consequently giving rise to additional potential threats, including terrorist acts involving HazMat/CBRNe agents. This reality underscores the critical need for response preparedness in this scope, elevating its importance to a level significantly higher than what we experienced just a few years ago.

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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