A popular series of TV commercials asks "What's in your wallet?" but sometimes it's more important to remember what you're carrying next to your wallet. That was certainly the case recently at Grand Teton National Park when a park visitor accidentally set off a canister of bear spray inside a visitor center.
Bear spray has a proven track record as a defensive measure against bear attacks, but the recent miscue provided a reminder about the importance of following the instructions for safely carrying such products. The apparently accidental discharge of pepper spray forced the evacuation of the visitor center at Colter Bay earlier this month.
According to a park report, as a ranger was greeting visitors for a morning program in the visitor center auditorium a man sat down on what was apparently an unsecured canister of bear spray. This caused the can to discharge its contents of highly irritating spray into the room.
The active ingredient in most bear spray products is capsaicin and related capsaicinoids, similar to the pepper spray carried by law enforcement officers—but with a higher percentage of the irritant.
The ranger immediately recognized what had happened and directed all the occupants of the room to the emergency exits.
Park emergency personnel were notified of the incident since the building’s air handling systems carried the residual pepper spray into the main lobby. The first emergency units to arrive found approximately 20 employees and visitors in the main lobby coughing and experiencing other side effects from the pepper spray.
Incident command was established and the building was evacuated. While emergency medical staff evaluated both employees and visitors, structural fire personnel in full Personal Protective Equipment began ventilating the building. All the affected individuals declined medical treatment.
Visitor services were continued through the rest of the day at portable tables in front of the visitor center while cleanup was begun by facility management staff. That cleanup, however, proved to be a challenging task.
The irritant in the spray is dispersed in an oil-based aerosol that clings to any surface it contacts, including vinyl, plastics, carpeting, clothing and human skin. An additional challenge involved the merchandise in the building's gift shop. The cooperating association staff bagged and sealed many soft items, such as t-shirts and stuffed animals, for decontamination at a later date.
It's unknown whether it was a case of guilty conscience or simple panic, but the visitor who discharged the bear spray ran from the room and building. Rangers were unsuccessful in locating the man, but statements from the interpreter in the room and other visitors indicate that the discharge was accidental. The visitor center was reopened the following day.
The incident is a good reminder that anyone who purchases a product such as bear pepper spray needs to read—and heed—the instructions. A video from Yellowstone National Park on use of bear pepper spray notes that "a good bear pepper spray will have a safety clip on the trigger. This prevents accidental discharge." You can view that video at this link, or just read the transcript here.