A Hazardous Materials Incident can occur anywhere, ranging from a chemical spill on the highway to an industrial accident to groundwater contamination by naturally occurring methane gas.  Hazardous materials are substances that, because of their chemical nature, pose a potential risk to life, health and property if they are released.  These hazards can exist during production, storage, transportation, use or disposal.  Massachusetts experiences thousands of HazMat incidents annually.  Fortunately, the vast majority of them are small in nature and quickly, easily and safely contained. Most communities in Massachusetts have Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) or are members of a Regional LEPC that can identify industrial hazardous materials and help keep communities informed of the potential risk.

Before a Hazardous Material Incident occurs

  • Contact your LEPC; learn about hazardous materials, your community’s response plan and how you can participate.
  • Find out evacuation plans for your workplace and children’s school.
  • Ask Public Safety Officials of the types of warning procedures used in your community:
  1. Outdoor sirens or horns.
  2. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) - information provided on the radio and television.
  3. NOAA Weather Alert Radio.
  4. ‘All Call’ or ‘Reverse 911’ - an automated telephoning system for sending recorded messages.
  5. Commercial News Media.
  6. Residential Route Alerting, which dispatches Public Safety vehicles through neighborhoods announcing messages with Public Address systems.
  7. U.S. Coast Guard Marine Broadcast.
  8. A message on Teletypewriters (TTY).
  • Use the information gathered from your LEPC and local Emergency Management Office to evaluate risks to your household.  Determine how close you are to factories, highways, or railroads that may produce, store or transport hazardous materials.
  • Develop a Family Communication Plan.
  • Know your community’s evacuation routes (see Evacuation).  An evacuation for a HazMat incident could last a few hours or days.
  • Be prepared to ‘Shelter-in-Place’ (see Shelter-in-Place).  At home you should select a room for a HazMat Incident shelter.  It should be above ground, large enough to accommodate all household members and pets, and have the fewest possible exterior windows and doors.
  • You should assemble a HazMat Shelter Kit to be used to seal the shelter’s windows and doors from the contaminants.  It should include plastic sheeting, duct tape, scissors, towels, and modeling clay (or other material to stuff into cracks).

During a Hazardous Material Incident

  • If you witness (or smell) a hazardous materials incident, call 911.
  • If you hear a warning signal, listen to the Media for further instructions.
  • Stay away from the incident site.
  • If you are caught outside, remember that gases and mists are generally heavier than air.  Try to stay upstream, uphill and upwind.
  • If in a motor vehicle, stop and seek shelter in a permanent building if possible.  If you must remain in your car, keep windows and vents closed and shut off the air conditioner and heater.
  • If asked to evacuate your home, do so immediately, checking with neighbors who may require special assistance.  If authorities indicate that there is enough time, close windows, shut vents and turn off attic, heating and air conditioning fans to minimize contamination.
  • If requested to ‘shelter-in-place’, follow all instructions given by authorities.
  • Immediately after the shelter-in-place announcement is issued, fill the bathtub (first sterilize it with a diluted bleach solution –one part bleach to 10 parts water) and large containers with water for drinking, cooking and dishwashing.  Be prepared to turn off the main water intake valve in case authorities ask you to do so.
  • Close and lock all exterior doors and windows.  Close vents, fireplace dampers and as many interior doors as possible. 
  • Turn off air conditioners and ventilation systems.                                                                                
  • Assemble all household members and pets in the pre-designated HazMat Incident room with your Supply Kit.
  • Close doors and windows in the room, stuffing a towel tightly under each door, taping around the sides and top of the door.  Cover each window and vent in the room with a single piece of plastic sheeting, taping all around the edges of the sheeting to provide a continuous seal.  If there are any cracks or holes in the room, such as around pipes, fill them with modeling clay or other similar materials.
  • Remain in the room, listening to emergency broadcasts on the radio, until authorities advise you to leave.
  • If warned of the possibility of an outdoor explosion, close all drapes, curtains and shades in the room, staying away from windows to prevent injury from breaking glass.
  • When advised to leave your shelter, open all doors and windows, turning on air conditioning and ventilation systems.  These measures will flush out chemicals that infiltrated the building.
  • Schools and other public buildings may institute procedures to shelter-in-place.  If there is a HazMat incident, you will probably not be permitted to drive to your children’s school and pick them up.  Doors will probably be locked to keep your children safe.
  • Do not eat or drink food or water that may have been contaminated.

After a Hazardous Material Incident

  • Do not return to your home until local authorities say it is safe.
  • Upon returning home, open windows and vents; turn on fans to provide ventilation.
  • A person, or item that has been exposed to a hazardous chemical may be contaminated, and should follow decontamination instructions from local authorities. (Depending on the chemical, you may be advised to take a thorough shower, or be advised to stay away from water and follow another procedure.)
  • Seek medical treatment for unusual symptoms as soon as possible.
  • Find out from local authorities how to clean up your land and property.
  • Report any lingering vapors or other hazards to local authorities.