NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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How NOAA Oil Spill Experts Got Involved With Chemical Spill Software

Fire and smoke on a container ship carrying hazardous materials at sea.

The aftermath of a March 2006 explosion of hazardous cargo on the container ship M/V Hyundai Fortune. The risks of transporting hazardous chemicals on ships at sea sparked the inspiration for NOAA oil spill responders to start designing chemical spill software. (Credit: Royal Netherlands Navy)

It was late February of 1979, and the Italian container ship Maria Costa [PDF] had sprung a leak. Rough seas had damaged its hull and the ship now was heading to Chesapeake Bay for repairs. Water was flooding the Maria Costa’s cargo holds.

This was a particular problem not because of its loads of carpets and tobacco, but because the vessel was also carrying 65 tons of pesticide. Stored in thick brown paper bags, this unregulated insecticide was being released from the clay it was transported with into the waters now flooding the cargo holds.

Ethoprop, the major ingredient of this organophosphate insecticide, was not only poisonous to humans but also to marine life at very low concentrations (50 parts per billion in water). Waters around Norfolk, Virginia, had recently suffered another pesticide spill affecting crabs and shrimp, and the leaking Maria Costa was denied entry to Chesapeake Bay because of the risk of polluting its waters again.

During the Maria Costa incident, two NOAA spill responders boarded the ship to take samples of the contaminated water and assess the environmental threat. Even though this event predated the current organization of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, NOAA had been providing direct support to oil spills and marine accidents since showing up as hazardous materials (hazmat) researchers during the Argo Merchant oil spill in 1976.

Blood and Water

The NOAA scientists had blood samples taken before and after spending an hour and a half aboard the damaged vessel taking samples of their own. The results indicated that water in the ship’s tanks had 130 parts per million of ethoprop and the two men’s blood showed tell-tale signs of organophosphate poisoning.

After the resolution of that incident and an ensuing hospital visit by the two NOAA scientists, the head of the NOAA Hazardous Materials Response Program, John Robinson, realized that responding to releases of chemicals other than oil would take a very different kind of response. And that would take a different set of tools than currently existed.

From Book Stacks to Computer Code

John Robinson leaning on the edge of a boat.

John Robinson led the NOAA Hazardous Materials Response Program in its early years and helped guide the team’s pioneering development of chemical spill software tools for emergency responders. (NOAA)

Following the Maria Costa, Robinson got to work with the Seattle Fire Department’s newly formed hazmat team, allowing NOAA to observe how local chemical incidents were managed. Then, he initiated four large-scale exercises around the nation to test how the scientific coordination of a federal response would integrate with local first responder activities during larger-scale chemical incidents.

It didn’t take long to understand how important it was for first responders to have the right tools for applying science in a chemical response. During the first exercise, responders laid out several reference books on the hoods of cars in an attempt to assess the threat from the chemicals involved.

Researching and synthesizing complex information from multiple sources during a stressful situation proved to be the main challenge. Because the threat from chemical spills can evolve so much more rapidly than oil spills—a toxic cloud of chemical vapor can move and disappear within minutes—it was very clear that local efforts would always be front and center during these responses.

Meanwhile, NOAA scientists created a computer program employing a simple set of equations to predict how a toxic chemical gas would move and disperse and started examining how to synthesize chemical information from multiple sources into a resource first responders could trust and use quickly.

Learning from Tragedy

Then, in December of 1984, tragedy struck Bhopal, India, when a deadly chemical cloud released from a Union Carbide plant killed more than 2,000 people. This accidental release of methyl isocyanate, a toxic chemical used to produce pesticides, and its impact on the unprepared surrounding community led the U.S. government to examine how communities in the United States would have been prepared for such an accident.

By 1986, Congress, motivated by the Bhopal accident, passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). As a result, certain facilities dealing with hazardous chemicals must report these chemicals and any spills each year to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Apple II+ computer hooked up to Apple graphics tablet, color TV, and printer.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, NOAA’s hazmat team wrote the first version of the ALOHA chemical plume modeling program, now part of the CAMEO software suite for hazardous material response, for this Apple II+ computer. (NOAA)

Because NOAA had already started working with first responders to address the science of chemical spill response, EPA turned to NOAA as a partner in developing tools for first responders and community awareness. From those efforts, CAMEO was born. CAMEO, which stands for Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations, is a suite of software products for hazardous materials response and planning.

Getting the Right Information, Right Now

The goal was to consolidate chemical information customized for each community and be able to model potential scenarios. In addition, that information needed to be readily available to the public and to first responders.

In 1986, attempting to do this on a computer was a big deal. At that time, the Internet was in its infancy and not readily accessible. Computers were large desktop affairs, but Apple had just come out with a “portable” computer. NOAA’s Robinson was convinced that with a computer on board first response vehicles, science-based decisions would become the norm for chemical preparedness and response. Today, responders can access that information from their smartphone.

NOAA and EPA still partner on the CAMEO program, which is used by tens of thousands of planners and responders around the world. Almost 30 years later, the program and technology have evolved—and continue to do so—but the vision and goal are the same: providing timely and critical science-based information and tools to people dealing with chemical accidents. Learn more about the CAMEO suite of chemical planning and response products.


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Latest NOAA Mapping Software Opens up New Possibilities for Emergency Responders

This is a guest post by emergency planner Tom Bergman.

Aerial view of destroyed houses in Vilonia, Arkansas, after EF4 tornado in April 2014.

NOAA and EPA’s MARPLOT mapping software was designed for emergency responders and planners dealing with chemical spills. However, its features lend it to a host of other uses, from search and rescue after a tornado to dealing with wildfires. (NOAA National Weather Service)

For 20 years, thousands of emergency planners and responders have used the MARPLOT mapping software to respond to hazardous chemical spills. But creative MARPLOT users have also employed the program for a wide range of other uses, including dispatching air ambulances and helping identify a serial arsonist.

MARPLOT is the mapping component of a suite of software programs called CAMEO, jointly developed by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help emergency planners and responders deal with chemical spills.

These agencies have just released a new version of MARPLOT (version 5.0). MARPLOT 5 offers a host of new and improved capabilities, which translate to more mapping options, greater flexibility, and even more powerful data searching capabilities.

On the Grid

To illustrate a few of the new capabilities of MARPLOT 5, let’s imagine that a category EF2/EF3 tornado is blowing through McClain County, Oklahoma. McClain County is a mostly rural area, with only three small towns. For this scenario, we will assume the tornado passes through the small town of Blanchard, Oklahoma.

Immediately following the tornado, first responders will conduct initial damage surveys of the affected area. Generally, the Incident Command, which is the multi-agency team responsible for managing the emergency response, will want to divide the area the tornado impacted into a “grid” and assign teams to survey specific areas of it. MARPLOT 5 has a new “gridding” tool, which allows those in an Incident Command to determine and display the various survey zones.

In the Ready Files

Fortunately, McClain County is well-prepared to deal with this emergency. The county already has a complete list of addresses for the affected area in the proper file format for working in maps (E911 address point shape files) and has imported them into MARPLOT 5 before the tornado hit. In addition, McClain Emergency Management has compiled information such as locations with chemicals stored on site, homes or businesses with fortified safe rooms, and any special populations such as those with impaired mobility and made that data available in MARPLOT 5. Having this information at their fingertips helps the Incident Command prioritize resources and search areas in the affected zones, as well as keep survey and search-and-rescue teams safe.

The latest version of the software allows users to upload any .png image file to serve as a map symbol. This feature provides critical information to responders in a customizable and easily interpreted way. Notice in the screen shot of the MARPLOT map below that the locations of safe rooms, E911 address points, and residences of oxygen-dependent and mobility-impaired persons are clearly identified by specific symbols. The user can select any map symbol and see an associated information box displayed for that symbol.

Screenshot showing close-up of grid zones for a hypothetical tornado. The map shows safe rooms, 911 address points, and special populations displayed in MARPLOT 5.

Close-up of grid zones for a hypothetical tornado. The map shows safe rooms, 911 address points, and special populations displayed in MARPLOT 5. (NOAA)

In MARPLOT, any square of the grid can be selected and “searched” for information associated with that area of the map, which is then displayed in the latest version of MARPLOT as a “spreadsheet.” This spreadsheet can be printed and given to the teams surveying impacted areas. Below is an example of an information spreadsheet for E911 address points in a selected one-square-mile grid zone (Grid Box 2, 4).

Screenshot of MARPLOT 5 showing addresses in a spreadsheet.

Address points in the selected Grid Box 2, 4, displayed as a spreadsheet in MARPLOT 5 which responders can print out and take on surveys of damaged areas. (NOAA)

With this feature, emergency responders have the information they need contained in both a map and a spreadsheet as they conduct their initial damage survey. In this example, responders assigned to survey Grid Box 2, 4 already know they must clear 142 address points in the area, six of which have safe rooms, two of which have mobility-impaired residents, and one with an oxygen-dependent person.

Furthermore, the emergency responders in this scenario were able to accomplish all of these operations in MARPLOT without any access to Internet or cloud servers. And the software is 100 percent free.

This is a very simple example of new ways MARPLOT 5 may be implemented by emergency planners and responders across the country. There are a host of other new operations in version 5—including real-time weather via web mapping service (WMS) access—that could be used for dealing with wildfires, search and rescue operations, floods, hazardous material releases, resource management, manhunts … In fact, MARPLOT could be used in just about any type of situation where customizable and user-operated mapping might be helpful.

Learn more about and download the latest version of MARPLOT.

Tom Bergman is the author of the CAMEO Companion and host of the www.cameotraining.org website. Tom is the EPCRA (Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) Tier 2 Program Manager for the State of Oklahoma and has been a CAMEO trainer for many years.  He has conducted CAMEO training courses in Lithuania, Poland, England, Morocco, and 45 U.S. states.


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Our Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

In 2013, a NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Hawaii's Midway Atoll. We're looking forward to keeping our coasts clean in 2014 too! (NOAA)

In 2013, a NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Hawaii’s Midway Atoll. We’re looking forward to keeping our coasts clean in 2014 too! (NOAA)

With the end of 2013, many are reflecting on how the past year went. For NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, we think we handled things pretty well, despite seeing some unusual challenges come our way (e.g., grounded drilling rig, molasses spill, 70 foot stranded dock). After all, being prepared—and preparing others—for the worst is a major focus in our work.

Despite our many accomplishments of the last year, however, we know that we should always be striving to improve how we respond to oil and chemical spills, assess and restore damaged ecosystems, and reduce the threat of marine debris.

So, without further ado, here are our top 10 resolutions for 2014:

  1. Lose “wait.” That is, we’re increasing our capacity to process damage assessment cases and get dollars for restoration out the door more quickly.
  2. Get more mobile. We’re making several of our websites friendlier for mobile devices. In particular, stay tuned to response.restoration.noaa.gov and incidentnews.noaa.gov.
  3. Make more friends. We’re now on Facebook and Twitter, so don’t be shy about following us for the latest news and updates.
  4. Stay trendy. As trends change in what petroleum products America is importing and exporting, we’re working with the University of Washington to explore how this will affect our readiness to respond to the oil spills of tomorrow.
  5. Quit littering. Or rather, get others to quit littering. We’re always dreaming up better ways to change people’s behavior so that everyone’s trash, including plastics, stays out of our oceans.
  6. Get our ducks in a row. When Hurricane Sandy came racing toward the East Coast, it was bringing wind and waves that would literally reshape the shoreline. As a result, we’re updating our northeast Environmental Sensitivity Maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the value of these geographic summaries of vulnerable coastal resources when another disaster strikes.
  7. Help others. We’re partnering with states impacted by Sandy to assess and remove marine debris from the storm, so that means getting funding out fast to those who need it.
  8. Update our look. This spring, we’ll be releasing a major update to our mapping program MARPLOT, which allows emergency responders such as firefighters to create, customize, and download maps for offline use. Users will see very high-quality base (background) maps, including the familiar sight of Google maps.
  9. Listen more. We’ll be looking forward to hearing your thoughts on restoration plans and projects around the country, starting with Deepwater Horizon public meetings across the Gulf of Mexico in January.
  10. Release a new GNOME. In 2014, we’ll be releasing GNOME 2, our next generation oil spill modeling system. GNOME 2 will offer a Web-based system for forecasting the path of spilled oil in pre-designated locations in the U.S., include better 3-D modeling support, and integrate our oil weathering model, ADIOS.

Thanks for helping us make 2013 a great year. We look forward to even more in 2014!


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For Accidents of Chemistry, a NOAA Tool to Help Predict and Prevent Disaster

This is a post by Vicki Loe with OR&R chemist Jim Farr.

On April 10, 1995, at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. in Savannah, Ga., a chemical tank storing turpentine exploded, triggering a scenario similar to our hypothetical example. The facility stored hundreds of thousands of chemicals in tanks. The explosion resulted in widespread public evacuations and extensive damage. Here, black smoke rises from the fire.

On April 10, 1995, at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. in Savannah, Ga., a chemical tank storing turpentine exploded, triggering a scenario similar to our hypothetical example. The facility stored hundreds of thousands of chemicals in tanks. The explosion resulted in widespread public evacuations and extensive damage. Here, black smoke rises from the fire. (NOAA)

Imagine you’re a chemical engineer in charge of safety at a chemical storage facility supporting the pulp and paper industry. You’re having a normal day when—suddenly—there has been an explosion. It has affected three of the large tanks on the property.

One tank, containing sodium hydrosulfide (NaHS), is damaged and leaking. Sodium hydrosulfide is a chemical used to break down cellulose, the fibrous ingredient in plant cell walls, into pulp, making it a key chemical in the paper industry.

The tank next to it, also damaged by the explosion and now leaking, holds a tank-cleaning solution that contained the corrosive chemical hydrochloric acid (HCl). The third tank, the one that caught on fire and caused the explosion, contained a petroleum distillate material. It damaged the first two tanks, causing their contents to drain into a common area and resulting in a combination of sodium hydrosulfide and hydrochloric acid.

The Chemical Reactivity Worksheet

How would you communicate this scenario—and its potential dangers—to the emergency responders who are on their way to the scene? During chemical accidents, there are frequently many unknowns: What was released? Did it mix with anything? What might happen?

Responders at the 1995 incident caused by a turpentine tank explosion at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. storage facility in Savannah, Georgia.

Responders at the 1995 incident caused by a turpentine tank explosion at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. storage facility in Savannah, Ga. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Chemical Reactivity Worksheet is a free software program you can use to find out about the chemical reactivity of thousands of common hazardous chemicals and predict the hazards associated with mixing two materials together. (Reactivity is the tendency of substances to undergo chemical change, which can result in hazards—such as heat generation or toxic gas byproducts.)

By consulting the Chemical Reactivity Worksheet, you, the safety officer, would quickly learn that when sodium hydrosulfide and hydrochloric acid combine, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas could result. That gas is both toxic and highly flammable—possibly creating a very dangerous situation. To protect public safety, the affected area would require immediate evacuation.

Updating Software for Chemical Safety

A new version of the Chemical Reactivity Worksheet (version 3.0) has just been released and is available for download from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration website: http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/reactivityworksheet. The latest version is a combination of the latest reactivity information and expert knowledge from NOAA and Dow Chemical.

The free software predicts potential hazards from mixing chemicals and is designed for use by safety planners and the chemical industry.  It is a tool that is intended to help to prevent accidents at chemical facilities and, once an accident occurs, to give valuable information about the possible hazards associated.

The work was done as part of NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s joint development of the CAMEO software suite, which provides valuable emergency response and planning tools for releases of hazardous materials. The Center for Chemical Process Safety also contributed to the project.


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NOAA, Dow Chemical Collaborate on Update to Federal Chemical Safety Software Tool

A train derailment in Paulsboro, N.J. in November 2012 released 23,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride gas. (NOAA)

A train derailment in Paulsboro, N.J. in November 2012 released 23,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride gas. (NOAA)

NOAA has partnered with chemical industry experts from the Dow Chemical Company to release a significant update to a free software program used to prevent dangerous chemical incidents and help protect emergency workers responding to hazardous chemical spills.

The software, known as the Chemical Reactivity Worksheet, predicts potential hazards from mixing chemicals. This newest version of the program is the result of a two-year-long collaboration between NOAA chemical response specialists, technical experts at Dow, and partners at the Center for Chemical Process Safety.

“This is an innovative collaboration between industry and government scientists to produce a valuable tool that addresses reactive chemical hazards,” said Jim Farr, NOAA chemist and project coordinator. “We hope this effort paves the way for other projects that enhance our understanding of chemical hazards and leads to a safer work environment for those people in the chemical industry and those that respond to chemical incidents.”

“We’ve greatly appreciated the opportunity to partner with NOAA on this and see this as a win-win for everyone,” said Dave Gorman, Dow chemist and project leader. “This collaboration has allowed us to merge a number of best practices and tools used within Dow with the very powerful Chemical Reactivity Worksheet tool. The result is a much more powerful and versatile tool that we hope will become the gold standard within industry for determining chemical compatibility.”

The Chemical Reactivity Worksheet provides information about 5,200 chemicals, each assigned to one or more “reactive groups” of chemicals which may react in a characteristic and potentially hazardous way if they come in contact with certain substances. The user creates a virtual mixture of chemicals—which could include the chemicals involved in a hazardous incident or stored in a laboratory, warehouse, or transport vehicle. Then the program predicts the possible hazards, including fire or explosion, from mixing all possible pairs of those chemicals.

Screen shot from Chemical Reactivity Worksheet showing the color-coded reactivity predictions and hazard statements for the predicted reactions.

The Chemical Reactivity Worksheet shows the predicted hazards of mixing the chemicals in a mixture in an easy-to-use graphical interface. In this view, the reactivity predictions are color coded, and the cells on the chart can be clicked to find more information about specific predicted reactions. General hazard statements, predicted gas products, and literature documentation for the selected pair of chemicals are shown at the bottom of the chart.

This latest release of the software increases the number of reactive groups, allowing for more refined predictions of potential chemical reactions, and expands the description of reactive chemicals. The program now includes an alert for possible gases released from a chemical mixture, as well as information on the compatibility of common absorbents used in response to spills of hazardous chemicals.

In addition, managers of chemical facilities and university chemistry departments now can add chemicals unique to their facilities, enabling them to further customize their evaluations of potential hazards. Other improvements include enhanced ease of use and functionality for the user, refined reactivity predictions, and updated chemical data.

The Chemical Reactivity Worksheet is available for download online at http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/reactivityworksheet.

The work was done as part of NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s joint development of the CAMEO software suite, which provides valuable emergency response and planning tools for releases of hazardous materials. The Center for Chemical Process Safety also contributed to the project.  The team’s work was reviewed by other chemists in industry and at Argonne National Laboratory.


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With Skiff Found off Maui, NOAA and Partners Confirm Hawaii’s Latest Reports of Japan Tsunami Marine Debris

Skiff covered in barnacles towed behind a boat.

After finding the 20-by-6-foot skiff covered in barnacles floating northeast of Maui, the crew of the F/V Zephyr towed it in and cleaned it up. This skiff is Hawaii’s second confirmed piece of marine debris connected to the 2011 Japan tsunami. (Peter Grillo, F/V Zephyr)

On the heels of Hawaii’s first confirmed report of Japan tsunami debris, NOAA and our partners are already examining the second confirmed item: a barnacled skiff which a fisherman found off the Hawaii coast—and which he wants to keep.

Using the skiff’s registration number, NOAA worked through the Japan Consulate in Hawaii to track down its owner, who expressed no interest in having it returned or in whom took possession of it.

The Zephyr, a longline fishing vessel, discovered the 20-by-6-foot skiff approximately 700 nautical miles northeast of Maui and reported it to the U.S. Coast Guard on September 29. After cleaning the aquatic species from its hull, the crew took it aboard and arrived with it in Honolulu Harbor the morning of October 5.

“We appreciate that this fisherman reached out to us and our partners at the Coast Guard and State of Hawaii to alert us of the skiff and determine appropriate measures to take,” said Carey Morishige, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program Pacific Islands regional coordinator. “Boaters are our eyes on the water and we need their help to be on the lookout for marine debris.”

State marine invasive species experts have already examined the skiff for signs of remaining aquatic life, especially those which may be invasive to Hawaii. Although no items connected to the 2011 Japan tsunami have shown above-normal radiation levels, out of an abundance of caution, state Department of Health officials also checked the boat for radiation.

Plastic bin being towed in to pier off Oahu.


NOAA’s Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory tows in the 4-by-4-foot plastic bin which was the first confirmed item of Japan tsunami marine debris in Hawaii. It was spotted at sea off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012. (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

Just a few weeks ago, the first confirmed piece of Japan tsunami debris in Hawaii [PDF]—a blue seafood storage bin—showed up off the southeast coast of Oahu. The bin belonged to the Japanese seafood wholesaler Y.K. Suisan, Co., Ltd., whose offices were affected by the 2011 Japan tsunami.

On the morning of September 18, personnel from Makai Ocean Engineering pointed out the buoyant blue container, which is used to transport seafood, near a pier on the southeastern shore of Oahu, and NOAA’s Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory fished the 4-by-4-foot box out of the water.

A closeup of the seafood storage bin from Japan found near Oahu and encrusted with marine life.

A close examination of the seafood storage bin from Japan found near Oahu revealed a variety of wildlife both inside (Hawaiian red-footed boobies) and out (gooseneck barnacles and two species of open-water crabs). (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

While the lower, submerged portion of the bin was covered in gooseneck barnacles and crabs common in the open sea, a NOAA marine invertebrate scientist joined state aquatic invasive species experts in examining and confirming that none of the organisms were invasive. When the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory towed in the bin, they also found five Hawaiian red-footed boobies inside; three of which were dead, though two successfully managed to fly off.

Because both the skiff and the seafood bin have unique identifying information, both items have been definitively traced back to Japan and confirmed as lost during the tsunami of March 2011. These items were confirmed with the assistance of the Japan Consulate in Honolulu and Government of Japan.

However, the assorted flotsam which Hawaii residents have reported recently is often nearly impossible to connect to the tsunami. It includes everything from unusual light bulbs and a hard hat to plastic containers and pieces of Styrofoam. Marine debris is an everyday problem, and items like these have been known to wash up on Hawaiian shores long before the 2011 tsunami.

While fishermen reportedly saw a floating concrete dock near the Main Hawaiian Islands, it has not been sighted again [PDF] since initial reports on September 19. In the meantime, NOAA has coordinated with the U.S. Coast Guard, State of Hawaii, and other agencies to prepare for its possible reappearance and support the state in its plan to deal with the dock before it makes landfall.

The 30-by-50-foot dock appears similar to one that washed ashore in Oregon last June, which, when it arrived encrusted in sea life, prompted concerns about the possibility of aquatic invasive species from Japan. If this latest dock reappeared and proved to be a match, it would be the second of three docks reported missing from Japan following the March 2011 tsunami.

However, despite aerial surveys by the U.S. Coast Guard and Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources to identify the dock’s location, no additional sightings have surfaced. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration oceanographers have used our GNOME model to forecast the dock’s possible movement using data on currents from the University of Hawaii’s Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) and wind forecasts from NOAA’s National Weather Service. However, the accuracy of the model’s predictions is unknown due to the lack of observational data on where the dock was traveling over time. In addition, NOAA has prepared two satellite tracking buoys for Hawaii to use in case the dock is relocated.

Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, the state’s lead agency for responding to possible Japan tsunami marine debris, is asking that boaters, fishers, and pilots keep an eye out for debris. If sighted, the agency says to call in reports immediately to 1.808.587.0400. The NOAA Marine Debris Program also is gathering sightings of potential Japan tsunami marine debris at DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.

Keep up with NOAA’s latest efforts surrounding the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/.


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How to Use Your Smartphone to Avoid a Chemical Disaster

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s David Wesley.

Picture this: a call comes in to a fire station—three train cars have derailed. As the responding firefighters race to the scene, news comes over the radio that several chemical containers on board were damaged, some may be leaking their hazardous contents, and somebody mentioned smelling smoke. What should the approaching firefighters do?

Screen shot of CAMEO Chemicals mobile website for the chemical toluene.

From your smartphone you can now view an optimized version of the CAMEO Chemicals website to look up information on chemicals such as toluene. (NOAA)

Fortunately, first responders now have a new place to find the critical information they need in this situation: their smartphone. My office just launched a mobile website version of CAMEO Chemicals, an essential resource for emergency responders.

Because no one could possibly memorize response recommendations for the thousands of hazardous materials shipped across the U.S. or stored in facilities, we developed CAMEO Chemicals as a searchable chemical response encyclopedia.

This kind of quick access to information about a chemical is critical. A hazardous material incident can escalate quickly and, in the case of some toxic gas clouds, can cause harm and then dissipate within minutes.

Because of these factors, responders need to be able to find specific information, for example, whether the spilled chemical will react violently with water. Will it spontaneously combust? What happens if it’s exposed to fire? And they need to know all of this at a moment’s notice.

When time is of the essence, having multiple avenues to this key information can be invaluable. Most hazmat (hazardous material) fire trucks carry print copies of response guides, such as the Emergency Response Guidebook, and many also roll with a laptop onboard with special software installed. One of those software products is our suite of programs called CAMEO (Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations), which includes CAMEO Chemicals and also the mapping application MARPLOT.

The cutting-edge Macintosh SE computer.

The cutting-edge Macintosh SE—on a fire truck near you! This successor to the Macintosh Plus loyally served us CAMEO programmers for years. (NOAA/David Wesley)

CAMEO Chemicals combines a number of data sources, including the Emergency Response Guidebook. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA have been partnering to keep this tool updated since the first version was installed on a Macintosh Plus computer and bolted to a table on a hazmat fire truck back in the 1980s.

(Actually, our office first created a Microsoft DOS version—but then switched to Macintosh, because Apple’s newfangled concept of using a mouse to navigate a computer seemed like the perfect, easy-to-use solution for firefighters.)

A view of the original CAMEO Chemicals, created using the Macintosh software program HyperCard and called "RIDS" (Response Information Data Sheet).

Before there was the World Wide Web, there was this. One of the earliest versions of CAMEO Chemicals was called “RIDS” (Response Information Data Sheet). (NOAA)

Having CAMEO Chemicals installed on a laptop computer can be crucial if, say, you are responding to an area hit by a tornado and there is no internet connection or cellular service available.

But getting software installed by information technology staff can be difficult for some organizations, as is keeping it up-to-date. As a result, we released an online version of CAMEO Chemicals in 2007. Having it available on the web means anyone—such as a police officer—who is suddenly responding to a chemical accident can get this information on the fly.

This year, with the rising ubiquity of smartphones, the time seemed right to release a version of the website customized for mobile devices. Now, as of August 2012, a first responder with nothing more than a phone (with access to the Internet) can navigate thousands of chemicals with just the swipe of a finger.

A student from the nearby University of Washington joined our team in Seattle, Wash., and developed this mobile version of the CAMEO Chemicals website over the course of the summer. Thanks to him (and the EPA and NOAA, of course), emergency responders now have one more tool to add to their toolbox.

Dave WesleyDavid Wesley is a software developer and project manager for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He has worked on numerous versions of CAMEO—as well as other projects for chemical and oil spill response—over the years. He first started working on CAMEO back when it was developed in HyperCard on early Macintosh computers.

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