Citizens Guide

A CITIZENS GUIDE TO HAZARDOUS MATERIALS EMERGENCIES Welcome to the Citizens Guide to Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) Emergencies. Hazardous materials are common throughout our community. Industry, business, government, agriculture, and private citizens use chemicals on a daily basis. Lives can be saved and injuries prevented by knowing how to handle hazardous materials.



What are Hazardous Materials?

Hazardous materials are chemical substances, which if released or misused, can pose a threat to the environment or health. These chemicals are used in industry, agriculture, medicine, research, and consumer goods. Hazardous materials come in the form of explosives, flammable and combustible substances, poisons, and radioactive materials. Large releases of these substances are most often the result of transportation accidents or because of chemical accidents in plants.

Did You Know…?

  • Hazardous materials in various forms can cause death, serious injury, long-lasting health effects, and damage to buildings, homes, and other property. Many products containing hazardous chemicals are used and stored in homes routinely. These products are also shipped daily on the nation's highways, railroads, waterways, and pipelines.
  • Varying quantities of hazardous materials are manufactured, used, or stored at an estimated 4.5 million facilities in the United States, including major industrial plants, local dry cleaning establishments, and gardening supply stores.
  • The largest numbers of chemical accidents are in our homes. These incidents usually result from ignorance or carelessness in using flammable or combustible materials.
  • The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) requires that detailed information about hazardous substances in or near communities be available at the public’s request. The law provides stiff penalties for companies that fail to comply and allows citizens to file lawsuits against companies and government agencies to force them to obey the law.
  • More than 30 states have passed laws giving workers and citizens access to information about hazardous substances in their workplaces and communities. As many as 500,000 products pose physical or health hazards and can be defined as “hazardous chemicals.”
  • Each year, over 1,000 new synthetic chemicals are introduced.
  • The Department of Transportation regulates routes, speed limits used by carriers, and monitors the types of hazardous materials crossing state lines.
In an average community of 100,000 residents, 23.5 tons of toilet bowl cleaner, 13.5 tons of liquid household cleaners, and 3.5 tons of motor oil are discharged into city drains each month.

Hazardous Material Accidents

A hazardous materials (HAZMAT) accident can occur anywhere. Communities located near chemical manufacturing plants are particularly at risk. However, hazardous materials are transported on our roads and railways daily, so any area should be considered vulnerable to an incident.


Learn to detect the presence of a hazardous material. Many hazardous materials do not have a taste or an odor. Some materials can be detected because they cause physical reactions such as burning or watering eyes, coughing, burning throat or nausea. Some hazardous materials exist beneath the surface of the ground and can be recognized by an oil or foam-like appearance.

Develop a personal and family safety plan.
  • Be prepared to evacuate or “shelter-in-place” as required.
  • Find out evacuation plans for your workplace.
  • Find out evacuation plans for your children’s school or daycare.
  • Find out evacuation plans for elderly family members, whether they live at home or in a nursing facility.
  • Have several evacuation routes planned from these locations.
  • Ask about industry and community warning systems.
  • Contact your City or County Emergency Management office for information about hazardous materials information and community response plans.
  • Plan a “safe room” for in-place sheltering.
Prepare for the worst. Have disaster supplies on hand and organized in one place:
  • Cash and credit cards
  • Road map that includes the county
  • Emergency food and water for 5 days
  • Non electric can opener
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Portable, battery-operated radio and extra batteries
  • Plastic sheeting pre-cut to fit windows and doors of your “safe room”
  • Duct tape, masking tape, and plastic wrap
  • First aid kit and manual
  • Essential medicines
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Blankets, coats, strong clothing
  • Pet supplies (food, toys, cages, etc.)
  • Games and other things to keep small children occupied
Develop an emergency communication plan. In case family members are separated from one another during a hazardous materials accident (this is a real possibility during the day when adults are at work and children are at school), develop a plan for reuniting after the disaster. Ask an out-of-state relative or friend to serve as the “family contact.” After a disaster, it’s often easier to call long distance than locally, or it may be easier to call into the area than out of the area. Make sure everyone knows the name, address, and phone number of the contact person. If you evacuate, tape an Evacuation Notice to the front door or window. This notice will have the telephone numbers of where you can be reached. Emergency or law enforcement personnel may use these numbers to locate or forward vital information to you.


If caught at the scene of a chemical accident, do not drive or walk through liquids, smoke or vapor clouds. The chemicals may be hazardous.

If you see an accident, call 9-1-1 to report the nature and location of the accident as soon as possible. Move away from the accident scene and help keep others away. Do not walk into or touch any of the spilled substance. Try not to inhale gasses, vapors, fumes, and smoke. If possible, cover mouth with cloth while leaving the area. Stay away from accident victims until the hazardous material has been identified. Try to stay upstream, uphill, and upwind of the accident.

If you are not trained and equipped for dealing with the hazardous material involved, do not try to care for victims. If you don’t know what the material is, wait until the substance has been identified and authorities indicate it is safe to go near victims. Taking such heroic actions works only in the movies. In real life, the result is usually more victims.


Any area not inside a city limit in Hidalgo County has limited formalized systems for issuing Emergency Warnings or Alerts to the public. The non-incorporated areas of the County have no outdoor mechanical sirens, portable sirens, individual homeowner alerting systems, or water sensors to alert for rising water. For city residents, contact your city for any formalized warning system(s).

Presently, warning and alert capabilities for chemical emergencies in non-incorporated Hidalgo County are:

  • Door-to-door instructions delivered by law enforcement and/or fire personnel
  • PA systems on official vehicles
  • Bullhorn announcements
  • Emergency Alert System (EAS) announcements on radio or television
If you hear a siren or other warning signal, turn on a radio or television to the Emergency Alert System Station for further emergency information.

If Asked to Stay Indoors (“Sheltering-In-Place”)

  1. Bring pets inside.
  2. Place signal marker on front door or window.
  3. Close all outside doors.
  4. Close and lock all windows, and close curtains or drapes.
  5. Set ventilation systems to 100% recalculation or turn system off.
  6. Turn off heating system.
  7. Turn off cooling system, and switch inlets to “closed”.
  8. Turn off all exhaust fans in kitchens, bathrooms and other spaces.
  9. Close all fireplace dampers.
  10. Seal off fireplaces, exhaust fans, and vents with plastic.
  11. Seal any gaps around windows, air conditioners, and outside doors with tape, plastic, aluminum foil, etc.
  12. Close as many internal doors as possible
  13. Go to your “safe room” and seal it
  14. Tune to the Emergency Alert System Station on your radio for further information and guidance
If Asked to Evacuate

Authorities will decide if evacuation is necessary based primarily on the type and amount of chemical released and how long it is expected to affect an area. Other considerations are the length of time it should take to evacuate the area, weather conditions, and the time of day. If you are told to evacuate:
  1. Stay tuned to the Emergency Alert System Station on your radio or television.
  2. Take your pets with you, but remember that they may not be allowed at the shelter.
  3. Take your pre-assembled disaster supplies.
  4. Post your emergency signal marker that has your emergency location telephone numbers on the front door or window.
  5. If you have time, minimize contamination in your house by closing all doors, windows, and vents. Also turn off all heating/cooling units and fans.
  6. If you have time, assist neighbors who may require additional or special assistance such as elderly or disabled persons.
  7. Leave as soon as you can
  8. Follow the routes given by authorities since shortcuts may not be safe

  • Return home only when authorities say it is safe
  • Leave your “safe room” only when authorities say it is safe
  • Follow instructions from emergency officials concerning clean-up methods
  • Follow instructions concerning the safety of food and water
Notes to the Media Responding to a HAZMAT Accident

In the past, media people have been injured because they rushed into a hazardous materials situation without the necessary knowledge or respect for the danger involved. Hazardous materials, as defined by the US Department of transportation, run the gamut from explosives to radioactive to poisons, compressed gasses, flammable gasses and combustibles. When approaching an incident involving railroad or highway transportation, there is always a possibility that hazardous materials are involved. The most likely prospect for personal injury comes from releases from tanker cars or trucks, but hazardous materials are also carried in seavans, container stacks, and inside boxcars. We include the following guidelines to help the media representatives make informed judgements relating to their safety.

  • If you are first on the scene, wait for competent authority before approaching too closely.
  • Stay upwind at least a quarter of a mile, until identification is made. This is not a magic number that guarantees safety, but the closer you are, the more danger you face.
  • Don’t have your helicopter fly directly over an accident. Products of combustion, invisible toxic vapors, flammable gasses, etc., may contaminate the area. The rotorwash may change the wind direction and endanger emergency workers.
  • If you are exposed to smoke, vapor, fumes, or liquid, you and/or your clothing may need to be decontaminated since hazardous materials can enter your body through the skin, eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • If exposed to smoke, vapor, fumes, or liquid, your equipment and/or personal belongings may be damaged. Wrapping in plastic will help reduce this.
  • If exposed to smoke, vapor, fumes, or liquid, your equipment and/or personal belongings may need to be decontaminated.
  • Decontamination of your clothing, personal belongings or equipment may damage them.
  • Wash your hands before smoking, eating, or attending personal needs.
  • Flammable vapors can be ignited by the operation of equipment such as radios, cameras, flood or flash lighting, mobile phones, etc.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions. Precautions taken at the scene, such as emergency teams wearing protective clothing, do not necessarily mirror the severity of the situation to the potential danger.
  • The media have the right to know and report on the events, but this does not include the right to interfere with the activities of those trying to contain the emergency.
  • Don’t expect immediate answers to all your questions. Even authorities don’t have all the answers in the early stages of an incident.
  • Don’t expect emergency workers to drop what they are doing to answer questions, or do an interview.
  • Get aquatinted with your local fire, law enforcement and public information officials before the incident so they can know and understand your interests.
  • Stick with authorities to get the story.
These suggestions come from CHEMTREC, a part of the Chemical Manufacturers Association. Additional information may be obtained from them by calling 1-800-424-9300.