Getting the Most Out of the Emergency Response Guide (ERG)

For over 40 years, the Emergency Response Guidebook (commonly known as the ERG) has served as a critical resource for personnel tasked with responding to accidental releases of hazardous materials.

The guidebook was first released in 1973 as part of a joint effort among U.S., Canadian, and Mexican agencies to help first responders protect themselves and the surrounding environment during the “initial response phase” of incidents involving the transportation of dangerous goods. The ERG is primarily applicable for hazmat situations on highways and railway, but can also be applied to air, water, and pipeline accidents. The U.S. Department of Transportation has a goal of putting an ERG in every emergency vehicle in the nation.

The “initial response phase” is defined by the ERG as the period of time following arrival of first responders at the scene of an incident, during which the presence and/or identification of dangerous goods is confirmed, protective actions and area securement are initiated, and the assistance of qualified personnel is requested.

While the ERG contains critical information that can help preserve safety and minimize risk during emergency situations, its effectiveness is largely dependent on how well individuals are able to access and act on this knowledge in real time. Obviously, the best time to familiarize yourself with the ERG is well before an incident occurs.

Here are four important things to know that will help you get the most out of the Emergency Response Guidebook.

Who is the Emergency Response Guidebook meant for?

Although OSHA and EPA regulations require first responders, such as police officers, firefighters, and HAZMAT teams, to be trained on using the ERG, the book can be made available to any personnel who are required to work in the presence of hazardous materials. By putting the ERG in the hands of emergency response teams, especially on mobile devices, municipalities can improve their level of emergency preparedness in the event of an accidental release within their jurisdiction.

Although the guidebook has been widely used for years by refineries, chemical producers, and other fixed facilities, the ERG cautions that it is “only intended for use when responding to transportation incidents.” The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has recommended that the ERG “include additional guidance on where responders can find chemical hazard information in responding to incidents at fixed facilities, such as Material Safety Data Sheets or EPA-required ‘Tier 2’ information which specifies the chemicals on hand at facilities.”

When should the guidebook be used?

The primary purpose of the Emergency Response Guidebook is to assist first responders in determining how to properly respond to a hazardous material incident, but it can also serve as a useful source of information when developing emergency plans and/or evacuation procedures. The ERG can also be used to stimulate real-world conditions in live drills, for developing best practices for responding to chemical accidents, and general training.

ERG 2016

How is the guide organized?

While some workers may believe that simply having a copy of the book in the glove box or on the dashboard constitutes being prepared, the information in the book is only useful if it can be retrieved quickly to make smart decisions during an incident. At nearly 400 pages, the ERG can seem overwhelming if users aren’t familiar with its structure.

The guidebook features five color-coded sections:

White: The first section of the book contains general information on rail cars, trailer identification, placards, and pipelines. It also outlines the hazard classification system, illustrating how dangerous goods are listed by their class and division.

Yellow: In the yellow section of the book, responders can locate specific information using a material’s 4-digit United Nations (UN) number. Materials listed in the yellow section that are highlighted indicate that the substance is a toxic inhalation hazard or water reactive. In an incident involving one of these substances without the presence of fire, users should refer to the green section of the book.

Blue: In the event that the material’s UN number cannot be retrieved or is not readily available, the blue section, which lists chemicals by name in alphabetical order should be used. As is the case with the yellow section, highlighted materials indicate a toxic inhalation hazard or water reactive substance.

Orange: The orange section of the ERG provides information on hazards and emergency response actions. It consists of two-page guides for specific substances, with the left page containing safety information and the right page outlining the actions that should be taken in the event of an emergency. It is in this section where important information regarding PPE, evacuation distances, spill and fire control measures, and first aid practices can be found.

Green: As mentioned previously, the green section of the book contains an index of toxic inhalation hazards and water reactive substances (listed numerically by UN number). In this section, users can find information on initial isolation and protective action distances associated with both small and large spills.

Note: When the material involved in the incident cannot be identified, users should reference GUIDE 111 in the orange section of the ERG.

How often is the Emergency Response Guidebook revised?

The Emergency Response Guidebook is updated and re-issued every four years by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The latest version, ERG2016, was released in April. It’s important for individuals already familiar with previous versions to brief themselves on any changes to ensure that they are equipped with the most up-to-date emergency response information.

A complete PDF copy of the 2016 ERG can be found here.

Try the SAFER Mobile Response App

SAFER Mobile Response is a smartphone and tablet-supported application that integrates the trusted 2012 Emergency Response Guidebook with the power of Google Maps, Google Traffic, and live weather updates.  The app puts the guidebook’s data in the hands of first responders, hazmat personnel, and law enforcement who are called to the scene of a chemical fire or terrorist incident. Download the app for iOS or Android here.

Note: An updated version of SAFER Mobile Response with the new 2016 ERG data is coming soon! Download the app now and an update will be pushed to your device.

Alex Misiti is a freelance technical writer who works extensively with clients in the oil and gas, construction, manufacturing, and process control industries. He holds a bachelor’s of science in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Pittsburgh.

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