Maintaining hazmat response capabilities can be challenging because, fortunately, significant responses are not typically common for most organizations.
Yet, there is an expectation that departments will be capable. There are some things that can be done to keep personnel “response ready.” Communities must determine the expected level of response and establish goals in this regard. This will vary based on the real and perceived threat of a hazmat event and a community’s willingness and ability to pay.
One of the more challenging assignments of fire departments and firefighters is preparing for and responding to calls involving hazardous materials. There are considerations such as expense, training required, specialized equipment, and the continually changing chemicals and hazards that could be involved. Add to this that, for the most part, these calls are relatively infrequent (this is a good thing) and the methodology used for response is typically different than a firefighter’s approach to other emergencies.
As with so many aspects of the fire service, there are varying degrees of quality that organizations have with regard to hazmat response. While all must meet minimum standards and Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, each elects the level of competence it wishes to attain and maintain. The ultimate level of response is determined by personnel (both talent and number), training, equipment, and leadership. Each of these requires funding, so the ability and willingness of a community to pay will affect the capabilities of those who respond.
The expense to staff and outfit a hazmat team is large. Again, the actual cost depends on the degree of performance expected of the team. The really good teams have an adequate level of staffing. In most cases, those on the team are taking this as an added assignment. This means that they will be getting extra compensation, either in some type of stipend or overtime or both. Those on the team are well deserved of this, so that is not the point. The issue is that to prepare to respond, there must be an investment in personnel. This is a major consideration for establishing and maintaining a team.
Selecting and maintaining personnel on a team is not always easy. It is an extra assignment that requires additional training. If the assignment to the team is in addition to a regular company assignment, there can be additional hours required. Personnel should be very healthy and physically fit. They will be asked to work in protective suits that stress the human body. There are added risks to responders because of the potential of exposure to very bad substances.
Another challenge is maintaining membership. There is a lot of training required to maintain competence and often few incidents. This can lead to frustration because members could become bored with the infrequent opportunity to use these special skills. If this occurs, there is the added expense that results from turnover. New members need to be recruited and trained. Each time, the person is starting from scratch.
There are things that can be done to minimize turnover and maintain interest. First, there needs to be good leadership on the team. Firefighters are no different from others in that they want to work for competent people who are passionate about their job. Strong leadership goes a long way in determining stability. The right people have to be selected for the positions and then they must be continually provided with the training and tools to be effective. There must be a mindset of continual improvement and an understanding that the world of hazardous materials is continually changing. The best leaders in this field are able to relay this to the entire team so that they understand the importance of response readiness.
Personnel will remain interested if they are treated fairly and reasonably. This does not mean that they want you to break the bank or change the rules for them. It is more about treating them like you would want to be treated. They should be compensated so it is worth their while. It can be through a bonus stipend, overtime, or a combination of both. They need quality training that does not waste their time. It must be applicable to the hazards to be faced. There cannot be a perception that the training is not organized or a waste of time. You also need to use the talents of the people on the team. There is a sense of pride that must continue as long as an individual remains on the team.
As with everything else in the fire service, training is critical to the performance of a hazmat team. There must be good organization and a strong plan to address the potential hazards that are likely to be faced. Hazmat teams must use the proper instructors. These can be members on the team and may also include specialists who could be recruited (hired) from other organizations or industry. The training will involve maintaining skills and knowledge along with introducing new ideas, processes, and techniques. Team members should attend conferences, workshops, and seminars to keep tabs on the “state of the art” and learn from nationally (and internationally) recognized experts. The infrequency of incidents mandates that there is continual training so that competence is at the highest level possible.
The private sector offers many resources to fire department hazmat teams and has experts in the chemical field who have more knowledge than virtually any of the responders. They know their products and have equipment and materials to deal with potential releases. They are continually developing products to safeguard their assets. Those in the industry mostly understand the safety side of the business and realize that mishaps are not good for the bottom line. Their motives may be different-i.e., profit-but their goals regarding the elimination of incidents are the same as response teams. Teams need to use this resource. They need to find what exists locally and what may be available from others.
Tools and Equipment
Another challenge to teams is keeping up on the development and availability of new tools and equipment that improve response. As industries develop new products, they usually have corresponding safety equipment. In addition, as more of this becomes available, the price may also be reduced, making it affordable to more teams. But, the direct cost is only one consideration. Organizations need to understand that there will likely be required training. How much time this will involve and what the cost is are two questions that need to be asked. There can also be maintenance issues and replacement parts. It is more than just the initial expense.
In many departments and regions, hazmat teams have become very mainstream regarding services provided to a community. There is an expectation that local fire departments will have the capabilities to handle whatever emergency may arise. The infrequency of hazmat events can lead to complacency and other challenges not only to the fire department but also to the community as a whole. There are some who take the stance that there should not be an investment in resources that don’t get used often enough. This is a challenge to organizations and must be overcome through good, sound leadership.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.