Let's examine a situation. While the probability of it actually occurring is pretty low, but it's one easy enough to avoid.
You're dispatched to a call where multiple agencies respond. Events transpire where you decide to utilize your OC spray to regain control of the situation. Unfortunately it didn't "take" and an officer from another department has arrived on scene. Soon, in his attempt to turn the tide he utilizes a CED. Unfortunately your spray is only rated "non-flammable" not "CED compliant;" the OC-coated suspect bursts into flame.
It's an exaggeration—of course. But it's this exact situation and legal repercussions many agencies took a double check of their OC spray labels. And that hypothetical situation inspired New Jersey to update their policy earlier this year. Lt. Charles Barone of the East Greenwich Township (New Jersey) PD explains that it’s typically OC or the CED, an "either" situation and not typically an "and." Even with this low probability, the outcome can be something completely avoidable.
As a side note here, understand this is commonly considered a flash flame, which normally exhausts itself out before causing major injury—some singed eyebrows perhaps.
As Steve Tuttle, TASER International's VP of Communications, explains the above event would necessitate an accelerant. In the extreme, he compares it to gasoline (even though the oleoresin capsicum chemical is nonflammable)—the evaporating gas has the higher flammability. Likewise, once put into aerosol form, it's the alcohol that could ignite.
In the article once published on Officer.com, by CRT Less Lethal, Inc., the company tested this extensively. They wrote that, "Our protocol was designed to create a worst case, or most likely to ignite scenario. Little or no liability is incurred when everything goes as intended. It is when things go wrong, in the worst case, that officers and agencies need their products to perform as designed. Our results were surprising with some brands instantly setting our testing mannequin ablaze. Some responsible manufacturers have reformulated the chemical makeup of their sprays as a direct result of our testing."
What's happening now
Its been said that New Jersey's efforts earlier this year have preventative—decisions to combat the "could happen" scenario.
"A lot of aerosol subject control sprays sold to law enforcement will pass [Cod of Federal Regulations] tests and be considered non-flammable," says Kevin Dallet, Vice President at Aerko International. "But," he adds, "could be ignited by electronic weapons (CEDs)." The company already has a few CED-compliant sprays—one since 2003 and more in following years.
Dallet explains that the Attorney General's letter stated that all pepper sprays to be water based.
The good news is the flammability of OC spray is pretty much common knowledge. However, when was the last time something went bad after going unnoticed for too long? A BBCNews video clip found on YouTube posted February 2012 reports the problem was still being addressed just across the pond.
The video shows an officer spray an electronically-conducted shield; once the shock is initiated a rather violent burn erupts. It must be noted though it was a controlled display to illustrate the problem with a pretty thick covering of spray.
Even the popular Jamie and Adam from television's "Mythbusters" took to this issue. Their experiments took five cans and shot them each one at a time into a flame six inches away; one in particular inspires the video's title "pepper spray fireball." However their experiment does confirm that it's the alcohol in the spray acting as the accelerant, not the actual OC chemical.
For many OC spray manufacturers, this issue has been addressed. There are regulations and codes in effect. Yet agencies should still check their OC spray MSDS label for confirmation.