Fire Fighting in Canada

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Trainer’s Corner: May 2011

If your department deals with hazardous material, a copy of the Emergency Response Guidebook, or ERG, is an invaluable resource.

April 28, 2011  By Ed Brouwer

If your department deals with hazardous material, a copy of the Emergency Response Guidebook, or ERG, is an invaluable resource. The ERG was developed jointly by Transport Canada (TC), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Secretariat of Transport and Communications of Mexico (SCT), with the collaboration of CIQUIME (Centro de Informaciòn Quìmica para Emergencias) of Argentina, for use by firefighters, police and other emergency personnel who may be the first to arrive at the scene of a transportation incident involving dangerous goods. 

Labels and placards provide information through several identifiers including the colour of the placard, a numbering system for hazardous classes, symbols denoting the level of danger and the four-digit United Nations number.


This guidebook is primarily designed for use at a dangerous-goods incident on a highway or railroad. It was developed to help first responders quickly identify the specific or generic hazards of the material(s) involved in the incident. This is important for protecting first responders and the public during the initial response phase of a hazmat incident. This guidebook can help responders make initial decisions when they arrive at a dangerous-goods incident. The guidebook should not be considered a substitute for emergency response training, knowledge or sound judgment. There may be limited value in its application at fixed facilities.

The ERG has several colour-coded sections. White pages provide directions, emergency phone numbers, general information and guidance. The yellow section lists chemicals based on their four-digit United Nations (UN) guide numbers. The blue section lists chemicals in alphabetical order (a way to get the four-digit UN number and the guide page number). Pages in the orange section – the guide pages – provide emergency chemical information, actions to take, personal protective equipment guidelines, fire-extinguishing material recommendations and isolation/evacuation distances. The green section provides distances for isolation and protective action (evacuation and shelter-in-place distances) for chemicals that are gases or will travel as gases, and a list of water-reactive chemicals that will give off toxic gases when they get wet.


The ERG includes sections on shipping documents, hazard zones for TIH substances, safety precautions, a hazard classification system, hazard identification codes displayed on some intermodal containers, pipeline transportation, protective clothing and criminal/terrorist use of chemical/biological/radiological agents.

The section that is of most interest to us as firefighters is Fire and Spill Control (pages 350-351 of the 2008 edition).

Labels and placards provide information through several identifiers including the colour of the placard, a numbering system for hazardous classes, symbols denoting the level of danger and the UN number. Placards are diamond-shaped signs that display hazardous-material information for emergency responders, railroad employees and others. Bulk containers transporting hazardous materials are required by Transport Canada to be placarded. These placards are 10.8 inches by 10.8 inches and sit on the point at a 45-degree angle. Labels are like placards for most classes of hazardous materials, only smaller in size; they are attached to non-bulk containers or packages of hazardous materials. Labels are four inches by four inches and are diamond shaped.

Red placards or labels mean the product is flammable. Green indicates a non-flammable material. Yellow indicates an oxidizer and blue indicates dangerous when wet. White

indicates an inhalation hazard and poison, and black/white indicates corrosive (acid and caustic). Red/white indicates a flammable solid or spontaneously combustible product, depending on the colour pattern on placard. White and yellow indicates radiation or a radioactive product. Orange means the product or material is explosive. White with black stripes indicates miscellaneous hazardous materials.

The second indicator (the number in the bottom corner of the diamond) refers to the hazard classes used internationally and by the Canadian DOT. There are nine classes of hazardous materials:

  • Class 1 – explosives (six sub-classes)
  • Class 2 – gases (flammable, non-flammable, non-toxic, inhalation hazard/poison)
  • Class 3 – flammable (liquids, combustible liquids)
  • Class 4 – flammable (solids, spontaneously combustible/dangerous-when-wet material)
  • Class 5 – oxidizers and organic peroxides
  • Class 6 – toxic and infectious substances
  • Class 7 – radioactive materials
  • Class 8 – corrosives
  • Class 9 – miscellaneous hazardous

The third indicator is the symbol in the upper corner of the diamond. This indicates combustion, radiation, oxidizers, compressed gas, destruction of materials and skin by corrosives, explosives, or poisons (illustrated by a skull and cross bones).

The fourth item on a placard is the four-digit UN number used for the hazardous material contained in the container. There are hundreds of four-digit numbers used, from 1001 (acetylene) to 9279 (hydrogen, absorbed in metal hydride). In some cases, the number is specific to a chemical, and in other cases it reflects a variety of hazardous materials.

Note: In some cases placards will give the real name of the chemical instead of using the four-digit UN number, or will describe the hazard (flammable, inhalation hazard, radioactive) and not list the chemical name or four-digit number.

Placards from other countries are often found in Canada and may contain different words than North American placards.

Some containers or tank cars may have placards without the four-digit UN number, but will have an orange panel with the UN number on it. The orange panel is another way to legally post the four-digit chemical UN number on the container. You will commonly see the orange panel on molten sulphur-filled tank cars.
Placards are required to be posted on all four sides of a bulk container (rail car, truck, intermodal container). Besides tank cars and intermodal containers, hazardous materials are transported in box cars, covered hoppers, gondolas, and on flat cars. There may be more than one placard on the side of a container but only one is necessary.

Bulk containers with less than one placard per side (if only one placard is needed for the chemical), are subject to a citation(s) from transportation inspection/enforcement agencies. Some chemicals require more than one placard because they have been identified as having more than one hazard.
Tank cars must be placarded when they are loaded with hazardous materials. Tank cars that are emptied must still be placarded until they are washed or cleaned out, so that all traces of the hazardous materials are removed.

Empty tank cars with some product left in them are known as residue tank cars. Residue tank cars may have as much as three per cent of their original contents in them but are listed as empty on the train docket. Therefore, it’s difficult to tell if tank cars are full, half full or almost empty because they are all placarded the same way. This is where a check of the compression of the springs on the trucks may help. At one time, placards could be turned around in their holders to show the back side, on which the word residue was written, but those are mostly gone now.

An Internet search shows that the ERG is available for free use, 24 hours a day, in English, French and Spanish. The ERG online is easy to use, fully interactive and includes colour-coded sections similar to the original hard-copy guidebook. In addition, the application includes a search tool that enables rapid retrieval of emergency response information for a given product name or product identification number (PIN).

I was impressed with the recent addition of a free, downloadable PC version of the 2008 ERG. This version includes all three languages in a single application.
I suggest you spend some time online and check out the features that could help you as a trainer. There is a powerful searching tool for retrieval of multiple PINs and product names, or you can search for all products referenced by a given guide number. The site includes a history window, which tracks previously accessed information. This feature enables you to efficiently return to your prior search results for quick retrieval of ERG information. Response information for specific gases or vapours that are toxic inhalation hazards and that are released when certain materials are spilled into water is also accessible from this window. It may help to talk to your local carriers about what types of products you are likely to encounter in your fire-protection district; carriers have been known to give training officers placards to use for training. 

I was very pleased to find an excellent PowerPoint presentation for training available free of charge on Canutec’s website. The Emergency Response Guidebook Training Package is available in HTML and Microsoft Office PowerPoint format. These presentations are made available to any user/trainer of the ERG. Permission is given to use and modify the presentations if needed. Contact Canutec at 613-992-4624 or .

In case of emergency, dial 613-996-6666, 24 hours a day, seven days a week or *666 (Canada only) on a cellular phone. In a non-emergency situation, please call the information line at 613-992-4624, also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or e-mail

Until next time, stay safe, and please train as if lives depend on it, because they do.

Note: Correction: References in the March issue of Trainer’s Corner to NFPA standards should have read 8.5.1 and 8.5.2.

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and the training officer for West Boundary Highway Rescue. The 19-year veteran of the fire service is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a wildland interface fire suppression instructor/evaluator and a fire-service chaplain. Contact Ed at

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