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Chemical suicide – case study
The ‘Learning from incidents’ section of Brigade magazine includes case studies of major incidents researched by Fire & Emergency Management. Here, we analyse a chemical suicide incident in 2015.
A case study is an explanatory story based on a real-life incident that looks at what happened and why it happened. The aim is for people to learn from the case study so they improve their decision making in time-critical situations.
If you have any observations or initiatives you would like to submit from your own experiences in emergency management, visit the Observation Sharing Centre: http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/1449131/observation-sharing-centre
Sometimes in life events occur that fracture the very foundations on which we stand and our life is forever changed. The act of intentionally causing one’s own death (suicide) has always been a prominent public concern.
A relatively new approach to suicide in Australia is the use of toxic gases generated by the combination of consumer products or common household chemicals. The two most common toxic gases used are hydrogen sulphide and hydrogen cyanide. This method of suicide is on the rise and, unlike other suicides, is a serious threat to responding members of the public and emergency personnel, so it’s important to understand this type of incidents.
In 2015 Belmont Fire Brigade responded to an incident involving a suicide in a car inside a garage. The brigade was initially paged Code 3 for a carbon monoxide poisoning – which many brigades will have unfortunately experienced. However, upon arrival the crew found Ambulance Victoria already attempting to resuscitate the person and requesting assistance from CFA. During these attempts the crews were alerted to the presence of hydrogen sulphide in a nearby vehicle. Emergency services personnel immediately stopped CPR and evacuated the scene.
The person died and 12 people (eleven of which were emergency services personnel) were taken to hospital as a precaution.
What is hydrogen sulphide (H2S)?
Hydrogen sulphide is a colourless gas which is toxic, highly flammable and explosive. It has a characteristic foul odour of rotten eggs. With continuous exposure to the gas, a person loses the ability to smell it even though it may still be present. Hydrogen sulphide can affect the body if inhaled at low concentrations. Higher concentrations cause rapid unconsciousness and death by respiratory paralysis and asphyxiation which can occur in less than four minutes.
Possible indicators that a person has carried out chemical suicide may include:
- tape over vents, doors and windows
- the person appears unconscious and unresponsive
- a suicide note or note on a window warning emergency services that H2S is present. Warning signs may not always be present
- the presence of buckets or containers containing chemicals
- empty containers of chemicals in or around the vehicle/room
- the smell of rotten eggs.
Incident code The incident was initially paged as Code 3, but en route further information was passed on and the brigade crew upgraded to Code 1. When attending suicides try to get as much information as possible while en route, because every detail will help a crew to decide how to approach and combat the incident.
Assumption of carbon monoxide If the presence of H2S or chemical suicide had been relayed to the responding crews, it would have altered how they combated the incident from the initial response. When emergency services personnel were alerted to the presence of H2S, they stopped CPR, evacuated the scene and closed the roller doors of the garage to isolate the product, as per hazardous materials operational protocol and procedures.
Size up Responding crews identified that a thorough size up was essential in this type of incident. When they arrive at the scene, crews should take an extra 10 seconds to assess the situation. Such information is vital to help decision-making. CFA has at its disposal a range of chemical and gas detection equipment, and crews should consider activating this resource.
Breathing apparatus (BA) As with any incident where gas is present, using BA and/or compressed air breathing apparatus (CABA) are essential for the responders’ safety. In a chemical suicide scenario, never attempt to break a window or open the door without wearing CABA.
Liaising with experts It’s important to get prompt, accurate advice and guidance from the scientific officer so the gas can be neutralised. In this case crews were advised to use soda ash. H2S Operations Bulletin CFA had an existing Operations Bulletin (001/2010) outlining suicide involving exposure to H2S. Following this incident, the Bulletin was immediately reviewed and updated in consultation with key stakeholders. The updated Bulletin is on cfaonline:
cfa.vic.gov.au > Docs, forms, manuals > Manuals > Fire & Emergency manuals > Operations Bulletins.
Coordination of emergency management team The EMT was not as effective as it could have been in the early stages of this incident. At the scene, CFA’s rostered duty officer identified this problem and helped to make sure all agencies were on the same page. It was identified there was a need for agency commanders in this situation to provide input to, and support, the EMT and provide a link within EMT without taking on the role of incident controller.
Positive outcomes Considering the unfortunate incident, there were many positive outcomes that highlight the strength of CFA’s service delivery:
- There was effective transfer of control
- Appropriate response escalations
- Effective and efficient team communications
- Immediate isolation of the identified hazards
- Timely and accurate information relayed to the hazmat crew en route
- The experienced and proficient hazard response
- Rostered duty officer on scene quickly and providing strong support and leadership
- The use of protective action zone (PAZ) sheets
- Effective notification processes undertaken
- Genuine concern shown for CFA personnel welfare at all levels.
Chemical suicide using H2S is increasing in Australia and it poses a serious risk to first responders. Although the intent of responders is to attempt to save the casualty, a thorough size up is needed before carrying out a rescue, because the area will most likely contain enough chemical residue to significantly harm or kill responders.
If this content has raised concerns for your wellbeing or the wellbeing of someone you know, contact Lifeline or CFA welfare services:
- Peer Support Program – trained members offering support and advice. Contact your local peer coordinator.
- Member Assistance Program – a 24-hour counselling service. Phone 1300 795 711.
- Chaplaincy Program – offering 24-hour pastoral care. Phone 1800 337 068.
- HeadsUP – online information and advice on managing mental health and relationship issues. Go to cfa.vic.gov.au/headsup