Hazardous Materials Incidents – Mitigation (Actions Before, During, After)


Hazardous materials come in the form of explosives, flammable and combustible substances, poisons and radioactive materials. Hazards can occur during production, storage, transportation, use or disposal. You and your community are at risk if a chemical is used unsafely or released in harmful amounts into the environment where you live or work.

In addition to accidental or incidental releases of hazardous materials due to fixed facility incidents and transportation accidents, everyone should be ready to respond to hazmat releases due to terrorism.

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Hazardous Materials Incidents – Mitigation

The following actions are some important recommendations that you can follow through each stage of a Hazardous Materials emergency:[1] [2]

Actions Before: Determine Risk, Increase Knowledge, Safeguard, Plan

Many communities have Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) whose responsibilities include collecting information about hazardous materials in the community and making this information available to the public upon request. The LEPCs also are tasked with developing an emergency plan to prepare for and respond to chemical emergencies in the community. Contact the LEPCs to find out more about chemical hazards and what needs to be done to minimize the risk to individuals and the community from these materials. Your local emergency management office can provide contact information on the LEPCs.[3]

FEMA - Find your state office or agency of emergency management

Local Emergency Plan
Your community’s Local Emergency Operations Plan serves as a blueprint for response to many types of emergencies that could occur in your community, including a hazardous materials incident. Ideally, you should familiarize yourself with this prepared plan, which consists of:

  • The hazards in your and which travel through your area.
  • The heath hazards which occur with exposure (see table below).
  • What to do when you are exposed (see table below).
  • The local resources available to respond to an incident.
  • The resources of neighboring jurisdictions, as well as from States and the Federal government.

The hazardous materials plan should be one component of a more comprehensive plan detailing how you and your community would respond to various types of disasters.[4]

General All-Hazard Actions:

The following are things you can do to protect yourself, your family, and your property from the effects of a hazardous materials incident:

  • Determine the disaster risks in your locale and the hazards that accompany them.
  • Increase your knowledge about the emergency warning signals and alert notifications used in your community.
  • Instruct family members how to shut off water, gas and electricity to your house.
  • Make the necessary property preparations to reduce the damage from the hazard.
  • Acquire a backup generator in case of a prolonged power failure.
  • Check into insurance (property, health, life, and hazard type).
  • Make the necessary financial arrangements in case of a sudden evacuation and power outage that shuts down local ATMs and banks.
  • Organize important documents and records and store them in a portable lock box or safe-deposit box.
  • Perform home inventory video taping and store tape in a portable lock box or safe-deposit box.
  • Develop an Emergency Communication Plan with evacuation plan and ask an out-of-state person to serve as the "family contact".
  • Assemble a shelter-in-place Emergency Supplies Kit.
  • Assemble a mobile Emergency Supplies Kit that can serve as a “grab and go” bag?
  • Get a family member trained in first aid and CPR.
  • Make the necessary preparations and arrangements for pets, seniors, and the disabled.
  • Familiarize yourself with the emergency plans of your family member's employment building, school, day care center, or nursing home.

Hazard Specific Actions:

  • Shelter-in-Place - You should add plastic sheeting, duct tape and scissors to your Emergency Supplies Kit in order be better prepared for a hazardous materials incident.

Actions During: Safety Basics, Evacuation, Shelter in Place

Reporting a Hazardous Materials Incident
If you witness a hazardous materials accident, spill, or leak, call 911 or your local emergency notification number as soon as possible. In rare cases in which no local emergency forces appear to be available, you can contact the NRC to report an emergency. Provide as much of the following information as possible:[5]

  • The chemical involved, if known
  • Information on the substance’s placard or label, if it is visible
  • Precise location of the incident
  • Size of the incident, in quantitative terms
  • Direction in which the plume is moving
  • Color of the smoke or spilled liquid
  • Altitude and movement of the plume (i.e., is the plume rising or sinking?)
  • Number of injuries
  • For a transportation incident, a description of the vehicle involved (e.g., tanker or pickup truck), including any identifying marks, numbers, or placards

Following Official Instructions
Listen to local radio or television stations for detailed information and instructions. Follow the instructions carefully. You should stay away from the area to minimize the risk of contamination. Remember that some toxic chemicals are odorless.

If you are asked to evacuate:

  • Do so immediately.
  • Stay tuned to a radio or television for information on evacuation routes, temporary shelters, and procedures.
  • Follow the routes recommended by the authorities--shortcuts may not be safe. Leave at once.
  • If you have time, minimize contamination in the house by closing all windows, shutting all vents, and turning off attic fans.
  • Take pre-assembled disaster supplies.
  • Remember to help your neighbors who may require special assistance--infants, elderly people and people with access and functional needs

If you are caught outside:

  • Stay upstream, uphill, and upwind! In general, try to go at least one-half mile (usually 8-10 city blocks) from the danger area. Move away from the accident scene and help keep others away.
  • Do not walk into or touch any spilled liquids, airborne mists, or condensed solid chemical deposits. Try not to inhale gases, fumes and smoke. If possible, cover mouth with a cloth while leaving the area.
  • Stay away from accident victims until the hazardous material has been identified.

If you are in a motor vehicle:

  • Stop and seek shelter in a permanent building. If you must remain in your car, keep car windows and vents closed and shut off the air conditioner and heater.

If you are requested to stay indoors (Shelter-in-Place):

Following a hazardous materials spill, you may be given directions from the authorities to either evacuate the area or "Shelter-in-Place." If the order is evacuation, do so immediately, carefully following directions. Do not wonder about, know where you are going, and how to get there. Don't forget your disaster supply kit. If the order is to remain in your home, office or school, you will need the following directions for "Shelter-in-Place."

  • Move or stay inside. Bring pets inside.
  • Close and lock all exterior doors and windows.
  • Turn off ventilation systems (fans, heating- and air-conditioning systems, fireplace dampers, etc.).
  • Go into a room and seal the room. Choose a room with the fewest doors and windows. Ten square feet of floor space per person will provide sufficient air to prevent carbon dioxide build-up for up to five hours, assuming a normal breathing rate while resting. However, local officials are unlikely to recommend the public shelter in a sealed room for more than 2-3 hours because the effectiveness of such sheltering diminishes with time as the contaminated outside air gradually seeps into the shelter. At this point, evacuation from the area is the better protective action to take.
  • Dampen towels and place in the crack under the door.
  • Seal gaps under doorways and windows with wet towels or plastic sheeting and duct tape.
  • Seal gaps around window and air conditioning units, bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans, and stove and dryer vents with duct tape and plastic sheeting, wax paper or aluminum wrap.
  • Cut plastic sheeting to fit over the windows and vents. Secure the plastic in place with duck tape.
  • Turn on the radio.
  • If gas or vapors have entered your structure, take shallow breaths through a cloth or a towel. Avoid eating or drinking any food or water that may be contaminated.
  • Stay in the room until told it is safe for you to come out.

Actions After: Get Disaster Relief, Clean-up, Salvage

The following are guidelines for the period following a hazardous materials incident:

  • Go to a designated public shelter if you have been told to evacuate or you feel it is unsafe to remain in your home. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345).
  • Act quickly if you have come in to contact with or have been exposed to hazardous chemicals.
  • Follow decontamination instructions from local authorities. You may be advised to take a thorough shower or you may be advised to stay away from water and follow another procedure.
  • Seek medical treatment for unusual symptoms as soon as possible.
  • Place exposed clothing and shoes in tightly sealed containers. Do not allow them to contact other materials. Call local authorities to find out about proper disposal.
  • Advise everyone who comes in to contact with you that you may have been exposed to a toxic substance.
  • Listen to local radio or television stations for the latest emergency information.
  • Help a neighbor who may require special assistance - infants, elderly people and people with access and functional needs. People who care for them or who have large families may need additional assistance in emergency situations.
  • Return home only when authorities say it is safe. Open windows and vents and turn on fans to provide ventilation.
  • Find out from local authorities how to clean up your land and property.
  • Report any lingering vapors or other hazards to your local emergency services office. You should ventilate your shelter when the emergency has passed to avoid breathing contaminated air still inside.



  1. American Red Cross, CDC – Emergency Preparedness and Response, FEMA – Are You Ready? Guide, Ready.gov, Be a Force of Nature with NOAA’s Weather Ready Nation, National Weather Service Weather Safety
  2. Reminder: The information contained in this website is for general information purposes only. Please review the Terms and Conditions page for agreement of use.
  3. Ready.gov – Hazardous Material Incidents: http://www.ready.gov/hazardous-materials-incidents
  4. FEMA – IS-5.a An Introduction to Hazardous Materials – Unit 5, p.5-1,2: http://training.fema.gov/emiweb/is/is5lst.asp
  5. FEMA – IS-5.a An Introduction to Hazardous Materials – Unit 5, p.5-14: http://training.fema.gov/emiweb/is/is5lst.asp