Hazardous Materials

Hazardous materials are everywhere in our world. As an EMS responder, you need to be familiar with the signs of a potential hazardous material, maintain a safe distance, alert experts, and facilitate evacuations. Never approach a scene where a hazardous material has been released without the express direction of HazMat teams. Your job is to identify potential safety risks and alert a specialist team. If you can identify the material from a safe distance, then do so, otherwise, stay safe.


Situational awareness is key to identifying scene hazards and potentially unsafe situations involving hazardous materials. For starters, let’s kick off with what you already know about the world around you. In the box below identify one or more potential hazardous materials.


Possible Hazardous Materials

(think of some potential hazardous materials that might be found in a garage)

3y/o female found unresponsive, in the garage with an unlabeled empty container

Motor vehicle accident on a major highway involving 2 passenger cars

45y/o male with shortness of breath after working with pesticides

A couple living in a small trailer start experiencing headache and dizziness during a cold snap.

Bringing your knowledge into EMS

It isn’t hard to let your imagination run wild with all the possible situations you may encounter with hazardous materials. The key is to tune into your surroundings and identify when these hazardous materials might be a part of the current situation. This is an ongoing process, just as identifying any other potential safety hazards on a scene.

Once the potential of a hazardous materials incident is identified, it is the responsibility of all members of the EMS crew to alert other responders about the potential safety concern and take appropriate steps to mitigate exposure.

For example:

      • You may identify multi-colored pills on scene that you believe may be fentanyl. Touching this substance is not dangerous, but team members should be made aware of illicit drugs and have a heightened index of suspicion for drug related behavior.
      • While responding to a train derailment you see hazardous materials placards on some of the overturned train cars. Prior to approaching the scene, crews should stop a safe distance, ideally uphill & upwind and identify the substance using binoculars and a HazMat Emergency Response Guidebook or App.

Identifying the material is aided with the use of HazMat Emergency Response Guidebook, Applications and Poison Control.

Take a minute to look up these placards using the free app “ERG 2020” put out by the U.S. Department of Transportation:

A truck bearing the hazardous materials placards: code 1993 with the red number 3 below it, 3082 with black 9 below, 1824 with white 8 below, 1268 with white 3 below, 1268 with a red 3 below.
Public domain image. Source: usfa.fema.gov

Your turn: Identify placards in your community. Over the next few days, see if you can spot a few. Look them up and determine the steps required to care for a patient with an exposure.

Where did you see it?

Substance Identification

First Aid

Now it’s time to put your situational awareness into action. Ask your instructor or classmate to give you a scenario involving the potential of a hazardous material and work through it in real-time.

Hazardous Materials Skill Verification Table



2 (instructor)



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Oregon EMS Psychomotor Skills Lab Manual Copyright © 2023 by Chris Hamper, BS, NRP; Carmen Curtz, Paramedic, BS; Holly A. Edwins, Paramedic, B.S.; and Jamie Kennel, PhD, MAS, NRP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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