THE MAGAZINE

Emergency Characterization of Unknown Materials

By Rick Houghton; Reviewed by Col. Christopher G. Essig

***** Emergency Characterization of Unknown Materials. By Rick Houghton; published by CRC Press, www.crcpress.com (Web); 305 pages; $89.95.

Since 9-11, interest in the threats posed by hazardous materials (hazmat)—from routine spills and exposures to the more serious threats caused by terrorism, accidents, or natural disasters—has increased dramatically. With this text, author Rick Houghton provides a valuable reference on one of today’s most complex threat areas.

Houghton is more than qualified to address the subject matter. A 26-year veteran firefighter, he is a trained paramedic and hazardous materials technician, and he is certified in confined-space rescue. He is a hero, injured in the line of duty during an industrial arson fire that led to his retirement in 1999.

Readers should be forewarned that this is not a narrative; the book reads like an encyclopedia. Its first 79 pages are devoted to terms and definitions. Nonetheless, these pages are crammed with useful technical information. To Houghton’s credit, many of the definitions feature practical examples demonstrating the information’s relevance as well as details to help the reader provide accurate situation reports during an incident.

In the “Hazards” chapter, Houghton touches on a full range of substances from garden variety flammable liquids to more obscure hazards like chemical-warfare agents, biotoxins, and radiation. He incorporates practical examples and short case studies that make the section more valuable. The chapter on detection technology is the most comprehensive part of the book, covering a full range of technologies available—both new and old.

The final 50 pages of the book cover 13 rules or “commandments to guide the characterization strategy.” These provide sage advice in dealing with all hazmat situations. The author then goes on to expertly discuss strategy formulation for each of the hazards previously addressed.

The text has many useful tables and figures. The book’s pictures, however, are in black and white with poor resolution and, thus, don’t contribute adequately to an understanding of the material.

Readers would be better served if this exhaustive work provided a more integrated presentation of strategies for characterizing unknown materials. Yet as a solid reference book on a very important and technically complex subject, this work would make a good addition to a professional library for anyone who could find themselves dealing with hazardous materials.


Reviewer: Col. Christopher G. Essig is the inspector general and former chief of operations of the Army Installation Management Command (IMCOM), Arlington, Virginia. A military police officer for 30 years, he was the garrison commander at Fort Myer, Virginia, on 9-11, responsible for the Pentagon Fire Department. He is a 25-year member of ASIS International.

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