CBRN / HazMat Training Blog

Educating HazMat First Responders: Carbon Dioxide Incident

Written by Steven Pike on 06 April 2022

Educating First Responders: Carbon Dioxide Incident - Best Practices And Guidelines

While carbon dioxide (CO2) incidents are relatively uncommon, especially compared to their carbon monoxide counterparts, they can prove lethal in the wrong circumstances. 

Additionally, new measures after Covid-19 have increased the chances of too much carbon dioxide being released into small spaces, mishandling of dry ice (solid CO2), and potential associated explosive events.  

Now more than ever, firefighters and other first responders need to be knowledgeable about not only how to safely respond to these situations, but also how to detect potential carbon dioxide hazards.

Identifying When Situations May Involve Carbon Dioxide

Even a .5% decrease in oxygen level due to CO2 can lead to unconsciousness. Ensuring your trainees can identify locations and situations where carbon dioxide can be present is one of the first and most important goals of training.

This is because restaurants, breweries, and bars generally store pressurised tanks of carbon dioxide to carbonate drinks. These spaces tend to be enclosed, and many of them are also small. 

Add to this the fact that room temperature carbon dioxide (as gas) is colourless and odourless, and indoor CO2  leaks can become a potential death hazard for anyone caught inside. 

This means best practices for carbon dioxide training start with awareness. Trainees should be taught to keep CO2 in mind with every response event. This starts with assessing the location: is it small and/or enclosed? Is it a basement? Are there potentially pressurised CO2 containers in the vicinity?

Aside from utilising a CO2 detector (which we’ll get to in a moment), other clues pointing towards a leak include ill or unconscious individuals at the location and an acidic taste in the air. 

→Download Now: A guide to HazMat definitions, regulations, risks and scenarios 

Covid-19 And CO2: What Your Trainees Need To Know

Carbon dioxide in its solid form (dry ice) is used with some of the first generation COVID-19 vaccines, as they require ultra-low temperature storage until a time just prior to use. 

Although emergency events involving carbon dioxide have historically been uncommon, this high-volume delivery of COVID-19 vaccines may significantly increase these incidents on a global scale. It’s especially important that firefighters be prepared for these events, as they’ll likely be the first responders at the scene. 

First responders need to be prepared for a variety of hazards when addressing situations involving dry ice. Not only is there a potential for burns due to mishandling, but pressure buildup within tightly sealed containers may lead to an explosion. This can be mitigated with a pressure relief device, but in the event that this fails or is not properly employed, destruction of property and serious injury can occur. 

Additionally, teams need to be cognisant of the “off-gassing” from dry ice in enclosed spaces, as oxygen displacement can rapidly occur. 

When responding to incidents which may involve dry ice, firefighters and other first response teams should be trained in isolating the area and identifying potential explosion hazards. Visible indicators could include high pressure leaks and/or bulging containers.

Trainees should also learn how to properly operate their detectors (see below) to monitor the atmosphere until there is a containment of the dry ice and proper ventilation has been established. 

→ Learn more about HazMat by visiting: An Introduction to HazMat Training

Best Equipment For Training Against CO2 Incidents

As CO2 is virtually undetectable, alarm systems on the premises and handheld detectors are the only ways to safely monitor the situation. Training operators to correctly use their CO2 detectors is crucial to safe and effective emergency response. 

This is because even a 0.5% drop in the oxygen level on a four-gas detector indicates up to 25,000 ppm of carbon dioxide gas is present. This type of exposure can rapidly lead to impaired judgement, inability to escape, and unconsciousness. Death can also occur in these conditions. 

A Multi-Gas detector is key here, as it can quickly indicate a depletion of oxygen in a CO2-enriched environment. They are available configured typically as either a four or eight gas detector (to include Volatile Organic Compounds).

As can be imagined, utilising live agent training in this situation is extremely hazardous. Index cards are an option here, however they lack the realism necessary for properly responding to CO2 incidents, especially with regards to learning how to operate multi-gas detectors.

Real Experience Training with a Multi-GAS SIM solves not only the safety implications of CO2 training, but also the lack of realism associated with index cards. These simulators are built from the actual devices your trainees will use in the field, which helps build the muscle memory needed to quickly and correctly respond to emergency situations. 

In our new Covid climate, educating firefighters and other first responders in best practices for carbon dioxide incidents is becoming increasingly important. Carbon dioxide can be lethal both as a gas and a solid, and first responders need to be prepared to act fast in emergency situations involving CO2. This is why the ability to use and analyse the measurements of multi-gas detectors is crucial.  

To learn more about how Real Experience Training can improve first responder learning outcomes,  download our free guide. You’ll get valuable information about HazMat training regulations and definitions, and explore a variety of training methods to help your team prepare for any emergency situations. 

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Topics: Hazmat Training, Multi-gas Detection, first responder

Steven Pike

Written by Steven Pike

Steven Pike is the Founder and Managing Director of Argon Electronics (UK) Ltd. A graduate of the University of Hertfordshire, Steven has been awarded a number of international patents relating to the field of hazardous material training systems and technology.