Chemical incidents…then and now

Posted by Daniel Haggarty on 12 February 2013

It was December 1972 when a tanker accident on the M6 in Lancashire started a chain of events leading to the formation of the National Chemical Emergency Centre (NCEC) in 1973. At the time, it was widely felt formal measures were needed to help emergency services safely deal with the thankfully few chemical incidents that occurred. The Chemical Industries Association (CIA) and UK government set up a working party and NCEC was born.

The original aim of the centre was to provide a 24-hour telephone helpline to assist the UK emergency services in the case of transport emergencies. Over 40 years this gradually evolved to become the global, multilingual service known to its users today as the world leading centre. NCEC supports emergency services, private companies and the public and helps mitigate the impact of incidents on people, property and the environment. NCEC developed highly resilient global infrastructure and employed a large team of dedicated emergency response personnel, developing the capability to response without delay to emergency calls in practically any language.

However, as NCEC’s business developed, it remained clear the centre would have to retain its core knowledge of transport incident response alongside these more sophisticated activities. A reminder of this came only last week.

Biggest chemical spill” closes M62 in East Yorkshire" [source: BBC News]

At the time of the incident NCEC’s emergency responders were enjoying a relatively quiet afternoon but at 7pm sharp, the emergency phones sprang into life. The local fire and rescue service were in attendance at the incident and needed specialist advice on what to do. The responder handling the call quickly realised the chemical leaking from the tanker was benzole, a highly flammable coal tar product. With a calm head the responder made sure the firefighters on scene were armed with this critical safety information and had the knowledge to prevent further harm from occurring.

Each time the NCEC emergency phones ring brings new and varied challenges. Leaks, fires, human exposure and environmental disasters, it’s good to know with NCEC somebody is there 24/7 and ready to help.

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