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Incidents that threaten the water environment

The FRS deals with a variety of emergency incidents that may pollute the water environment. The safety of public and personnel will always remain the highest priority. But, protecting public and private drinking water supplies and the environment should still be prioritised.

In some circumstances it may be the actions of the FRS that cause the pollution or contribute to its severity, for example when foam is used as an extinguishing agent. In these circumstances, UK environmental law requires FRS to take mitigating actions see Environmental law for more information. Where the risk to the environment is high, incident commanders may decide on a course of action to reduce or eliminate environmental impact completely. Guidance on operational tactics designed to protect the water environment is available here.

FRS incident types with the potential to pollute the water environment

Incident type Effect
Fires Firewater run-off will be contaminated with products of combustion any firefighting agents used such as firefighting foam and any other pollutant that may be present which can dissolve in or washed be off site by the water used. If uncontrolled it may enter the drainage systems and then, surface or groundwater and or sewage treatment works. Smoke may also deposit pollutants contained within it when the plume grounds, from where it can be washed into the water environment when it rains. Or pollutants may be washed out of the plume itself by rainfall.
Road Traffic Collisions (RTCs) Fuels, lubricants and fluids, such as cooling or brake fluids, may be released by the crash, along with any pollutants being transported


Incident type Effect
Spillage or release

Incidents that involve the spillage or release of a material that harms the environment; these materials may include:

• Hazardous materials

• Eco-toxic – materials that are not classified as hazardous materials but are toxic to the environment such as inks, dyes or detergents

• Organic materials – milk, beer or sewage

• Inorganic materials – Silt, cement or sand


Spillages of oils and fuels are one of the most common sources of water pollution in the UK, causing approximately 10% of the total water pollution incidents. Just half a litre of oil can cover an area of water equal to a football pitch. In England in 2017 there were 230 confirmed pollution incidents following an RTC. The figures do not take account of incidents where FRS actions prevented pollution.

The FRS attends around 250,000 fires each year and in England and Wales alone there are around 4,000 hazardous materials incidents and 10,000 incidents classified as spills and leaks (source, many of which present potential and actual pollution to attending FRS personnel. This risk requires a common approach to environmental protection if we are to meet the aims of the EC Treaty, Article 6, to promote sustainable development (EC 1992).


A firefighter contains all on a roadway using a clay drain mat following a vehicle fire.
Iridescence by the outfall indicates that a small quantity of the oil has entered a nearby stream at the outfall from the road