What is the Scientific Branch?
The QFES Scientific Branch was established in 2004. The origins of the Branch go back to 1992. Its objective is to maximise the safety and effectiveness of chemical emergency management throughout Queensland for the protection of people, property and the environment. The Branch has four core products:
- Specialist operational support, for the QFES and other emergency services, such as the Queensland Police Service (QPS), when responding to hazardous materials/Chemical Biological Radiological (hazmat/CBR) emergencies in Queensland;
- Development and delivery of specialist education and training, across the QFES and other specialist agencies, to improve the approaches adopted within Queensland to safely manage hazmat and CBR incidents;
- Technical advice, across the operational and policy spectrum, at a State and Commonwealth level, to improve incident management doctrine, regulations and codes regarding the manufacture, use, storage, handling and transport of hazardous materials; and
- Emergency planning for industries storing and using hazardous chemicals across Queensland. This includes building relationships with industry storing/using hazardous chemicals; managing storage in emergency plans; and assessing emergency plans.
The Branch has 17 permanent staff including:
- Director – Chief Superintendent;
- Scientific Officers – six Inspectors; and
- Calibrations Officer;
- Firefighters – four; and Station Officers – four; and
- Administration officer.
Scientific Branch staff have educational qualifications, ranging from Bachelor degrees in chemistry to Doctorates in chemistry and physics. Some have also completed specialist hazmat training such as NFPA 472 Hazmat Technician and Specialist courses and Principles of Risk Assessment and Management courses.
Collectively, the industrial and operational experience of the Branch is more than 200 years.
History of the Scientific Branch
The Branch, as it exists today, was established in 2004. Previously, the Branch had been known as the Response Advice for Chemical Emergencies (RACE) Service. RACE was a component of the Chemical Hazards and Emergency Management (CHEM) Unit, in the former Counter Disaster and Rescue Service.
The RACE Service began in March 1992 and consisted of a core group of staff, located in South East Queensland, and a volunteer network of scientists and chemical engineers spread across regional Queensland. This model has stood the test of time. In its first year, RACE provided support at 52 incidents. Today, the Scientific Branch has more than 40 Volunteer Scientific Advisors and provides support at approximately 430 incidents across Queensland and interstate every year.
The Branch has also supported the delivery of international events such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held at Coolum in 2002, and more recently the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, where Scientific Officers spent a month in Cairns in 2007.
In 2003 support was provided at the largest known anhydrous ammonia release in Australia, where 25 tonnes was released at an abattoir about 150 km west of Brisbane. Through the cooperation of the QFRS and the company, approximately 20 tonnes was recovered. The operation to make the site safe took almost five days.
In 2004, the Scientific Branch was established when RACE transferred to the QFRS and staff were appointed as official Authorised Fire Officers within the QFRS.
In 2005, the QFRS agreed for the Branch to provide support to the Australian Capital Territory Fire Brigade. The Branch shifted to a new purpose built facility at Cannon Hill in Brisbane.
In 2006, the Branch provided support at the Kota Pahlawan maritime incident, involving sodium ethyl xanthate. Scientific Officers spent approximately 10 days on board the vessel whilst it travelled around Australia to its destination in Perth.
In 2007, the first Scientific Advisors reached 15 year service in the Scientific Branch Volunteer network.
In 2008, QFRS signed a Memorandum of Association for the Branch to provide support to the Northern Territory Fire and Rescue Service.
In 2009, the QFRS Scientific Unit was renamed the Scientific Branch.
In 2013, the QFRS was renamed the Queensland Fire & Emergency Services (QFES).
In 2013, eight permanent on-shift officers (four Station Officers and four Firefighters) were incorporated into the Branch to staff a 24/7 response vehicle.
Why is the Scientific Branch needed?
Hazmat incidents often pose significant difficulties to emergency responders. They frequently require a multi agency response and technical expertise to manage their safe resolution.
When hazmat emergencies occur anywhere across Queensland, the QFES needs accurate scientific information about the identity of the hazardous materials involved and the hazards they and the situation present, now and into the future, to both emergency responders and the community.
Information must be retrieved about:
- The hazardous materials;
- Their containers;
- The environment; and
- The situation.
The Scientific Branch, through their technical expertise and operational experience, is able to provide the practical support and advice needed by emergency responders for the effective management of unidentified hazardous materials, contamination incidents, leaks, spills, fires and toxic emissions. The Branch provides assistance at all stages of a hazmat incident, from response to the recovery phase.The Branch delivers an extensive educational program across the QFES. Every year, it reaches more than 400 fire fighters across the state. Other programs include the Chemical Detection Instructors Course and the Advanced Hazmat Course. Additionally, the Branch maintains an intensive targeted internal skills maintenance training program, that reaches all staff and volunteers.
What emergencies do the Scientific Branch respond to and what does it do?
The Scientific Branch responds to any hazmat emergency when activated by either the QFES or the QPS communication centres.
Typical emergencies include:
- fires in warehouses where pesticides are stored;
- road accidents involving Dangerous Goods (e.g. anhydrous ammonia);
- chemical spills (e.g. nitric acid, styrene, caustic soda);
- monitoring leaking containers on ships prior to docking and after docking;
- ammonia leaks in refrigeration plants; and
- identification of suspicious substances and the contents of abandoned containers.
Scientific Officers are on-call around-the-clock, seven days a week, to attend the scene of an emergency or to provide advice over the phone. They are supported by two specialist on-shift firefighters who are based at Cannon Hill.
The Branch provides information, advice and the operational capability to provide:
- the identity of hazardous materials;
- the hazards they present, now and into the future;
- testing and identification, including solids/liquids and gases;
- possible chemical reactions;
- hazardous material properties, such as reactivity, toxicity and flammability; and
- public safety and environmental protection strategies.
To provide this, the Branch has an extensive array of capabilities.
The Scientific Branch Capabilities
The Scientific Branch has capabilities across a wide range of areas and are available 24 hours a day. The Branch has access to information about more than 1 million materials and processes via:
- electronic databases and texts; and
- a research library of reference materials and incidents, incorporating approximately 20,000 documents.
The Branch can perform computer models of a variety of CBR and hazmat releases, ranging from BLEVES and explosions to toxic gases. These models provide a tool by which the QFES may predict the future situation at an incident and informs crucial decisions impacting the safety of emergency responders and the broader community.
The Branch has more than 1.5 million dollars worth of detection and sampling equipment positioned around Queensland. The Branch’s capabilities are integrated into the broader QFES detection and sampling caches, strategically positioned across regional Queensland. A snapshot includes:
- A suite of gas detection equipment, including:
- Gas phase FTIR;
- AreaRae system. The detectors in the QFES can be connected to the AreaRae network and relay information from up to 5 km away;
- Electrochemical detectors for various gases, including ammonia, chlorine, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur dioxide, and phosphine;
- Radiation detection and identification instruments including radiation survey portals and electronic identifiers
- Chemical Warfare Agent Detectors including AP4C and Bruker RAID MS
- Colourimetric detection for many different airborne contaminants;
- Specialist detectors including refrigerant, mercury vapour analysers and flame ionisation detectors;
- Air sampling systems for asbestos, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds;
- Field portable Fourier transform infrared spectrometers and GRAMS software with at least 30,000 materials in their libraries;
- Field portable Raman spectrometers with more than 8000 materials in their libraries;
- HAZCAT analytical test kits;
- DropEx Explosive Test kits; and
- Sampling systems for solids and liquids.
The Branch performs numerous other activities to support the activities of the QFES in protecting the community. It has applied scientific knowledge to extend the capabilities of its resources into areas not previously considered within the emergency management community, such as applying the AP4C to measure airborne organophosphate pesticides in real-time.
The Branch has been involved in a number of marine hazardous material incidents, including monitoring atmospheres at sea, boarding ships with QFES officers to assess the incident prior docking at port.
The Scientific Branch in Brisbane and South-East Queensland
The Brisbane-based service is provided in collaboration with Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services (QHFSS). QHFSS staff are tertiary educated chemists and the arrangement provides 24 hour back up chemical incident response service.
Two Scientific Officers and two specialist Firefighters are on-call 24/7. They work together as a team and operate from two specially equipped emergency response vehicles. The team support the QFES and other emergency services, such as QPS. These incorporate the capabilities outlined above and function, effectively, as mobile laboratories.
This provides the Branch with the capability to service multiple simultaneous emergency incidents and long duration deployments.
Scientific Officers also support the Scientific Branch Volunteer Network and can be deployed anywhere in the state to support major or long duration incidents.
Scientific Branch Volunteer (Scientific Advisor) Network
A stand out success of the approach adopted within Queensland to support the management of hazmat incidents is the Scientific Branch Volunteer Network.
The Scientific Branch draws on the services of local, suitably qualified professionals. They are typically chemists or chemical engineers and provide a prompt, at-the-scene response to emergency incidents involving chemical hazards.
These specialists come from private industry, local authorities and tertiary institutions across Queensland. The value of the commitment shown by these volunteers and their employers, who allow participation without disadvantage, to the success of the network cannot be over-estimated.
The volunteer network was established in 1992 and currently boasts approximately 40 Volunteer Scientific Advisors. The network is supported 24 hours a day by the Scientific Branch, based in Brisbane.
Every region within the QFES has access to Scientific Advisors, with the major station in each area forming their nominal base station. The Scientific Branch works closely with all regions to ensure that the Scientific Advisors get all the support they need to attend training and respond to incidents.
Education and Training
The Branch provides a one-week induction course for new volunteer candidates to the network. The course focuses on preparing the regional officers to act as an interface between sources of specialised chemical advice and the emergency services response crews.
In broad terms, the course covers:
- the roles, structures, resources and means of communication and response procedures of emergency service organisations;
- the hazardous properties of chemicals;
- hazardous materials and dangerous goods legislation;
- the management of hazardous materials emergencies;
- chemical information resources;
- incident assessment and risk control measures; and
- QFES operational Doctrine.
Volunteer Scientific Advisors are provided with equipment such as a uniform, identity badge and technical resources to assist them and are introduced to Senior Officers of the local emergency services in their home town.
Each year, a compulsory skills maintenance training program is offered on four occasions, either at regional centres or in Brisbane, and at different times of the year, to cater for the availability of the regional officers. This ongoing program assures the competence of volunteers and introduces new areas of hazmat incident management.
Travel and accommodation costs for volunteer training courses are met by the Scientific Branch.
If you would like further information on the volunteer network or you are interested in joining the volunteer network, contact the Scientific Branch on (07) 3909 4310, or email email@example.com or Damien.firstname.lastname@example.org
Application Kit -
Yearly Activity Update
The Branch has several key activities this year, including:
- preparedness for and delivery of the G20 event;
- transitioning QFES to new 4 gas instruments - multirae;
- designing and installing new hazmat decontaminate and mitigation resources, such as decontamination trailers;
- education including chemical detection of advanced hazmat; and
- research - particularly supporting the development of the "chemical companion" software tool.
Scientific Branch Research
The Scientific Branch on behalf of the QFES undertakes targeted research to better understand the issues regarding hazmat incident management and areas that affect the health and safety of firefighters.
These activities apply the Branch's expertise to enhance firefighter safety. As the projects are completed the results are published as reports, peer reviewed papers, presentations or via the "chemical companion" software. These projects are kindly funded by the QFES except where indicated. Examples include:
Safely managing gas cylinders and LPG cylinders adulterated with ammonia
- Lead Researcher Dr Damien Reid
Respiratory protection and firefighter exposure at Bushfires
- Lead Researcher Dr Katherine Kirk
Analysis of exposure of emergency responders to the by-products of fire
- Lead Researchers Dr Michael Logan and Dr Katherine Kirk
This research has several elements. The project analysis of exposure of emergency responders to the by-products of fire at CBR incidents and generation of data for decision support tools is jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the QFES and is a component of a joint Australian United States project. Another element is investigating the exposures of firefighters using the latest generation of protective clothing during search and rescue, extinguishment and overhaul. This also includes developing guidance how to minimise exposures and when should protective clothing be laundered.
Decision support tools for the Chemical Companion
- Lead researcher Dr Michael Logan
This project is jointly funded by the QFES, Commonwealth and United States.
As tools are developed and tested they are incorporated into the Chemical Companion software which is free for first responders. For further information about the software (www.chemicalcompanion.org)
The Branch is also participating in other research projects including:
Identification and destruction of organic peroxides. This includes the development of a new field expedient approach to destroy organic peroxides. New identification techniques using PIDs and other spectroscopic approaches have been tested and proven in the field.
Dr Damien Reid
Risk based skin decontamination of CBR agents
Dr Michael Logan
Assessment of hazard prediction program ARGOS
Dr Katherine Kirk
For further information about these research projects please contact the Scientific Branch on (07) 3909 4310, or email email@example.com
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*This publication was produced prior to the current government.