Incidents involving hazardous materials are handled much differently than the majority of calls to which fire departments respond.
To most firefighters, the response to incidents involving hazardous materials is very slow and methodical – not what many firefighters expected when they signed on for the job. But, experience and regulations have shown that this approach is best. Reprogramming personnel to respond in this manner is necessary and important so that the incident is handled properly. There is a great deal of training, education, practice, and discipline necessary for the entire department. The infrequency of these events makes this more challenging, so an organization’s leadership must constantly make everyone aware of the methods necessary to be successful.
In recent years, the fire service has approached risk management during incidents by adopting a philosophy to risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing so save nothing. There may be some variation on the wording, but the thought is that firefighters should not be endangered for anything that is worthless. For the big risks, firefighters generally act on their previous experiences, using recognition and prime decision making, and take little time to ponder the situation. In contrast to this, responders to known hazmat events will slow down and gather as much information as possible before deciding to act. This will include research, planning, and safety considerations. The dangers present at fires and hazmat incidents are real, but firefighters will take more risks at a fire. This could be a result of less experience and more preparation regarding the proper way to handle the event. It could also be because of strict regulations that specify certain actions and approaches for this work.
For most firefighters, there is not much history regarding hazmat incident response. They have not had any time to build up any recognition prime decision making through response or from vicarious learning through those who have preceded them. This contrasts fire response where “probies” can learn from their elders, though this can be good or bad depending on the experiences of the senior person. Since hazmat responses are infrequent, there is not much first-hand knowledge or skill to pass on. To add to the challenges, modern hazmat response is in its relative infancy. The service continues to evolve based on lessons learned and improved science.
So, the challenge to fire departments is to be prepared for incidents that are very infrequent but have significant consequences if not handled properly. This preparation must also include a “reprogramming” of firefighters from their “all ahead full” approach to their regular and routine calls. For whatever reason, many firefighters have no interest in hazmat responses, as they would prefer to hand them over to specialists. They have no desire to delve too deeply into the area and are not generally motivated to learn more than the bare minimum. They also are challenged to maintain their skills in many other areas, so time can be a factor. If something is to fall off the training agenda, it is likely to be items of minimal interest.
In basic recruit school, firefighters are given some of the basics of hazmat responses. For example, those in training for Firefighter I and II are also given hazmat awareness and operations classes (at least in Michigan). Regulations require continuing education in some of the basics to maintain knowledge. One can only speculate about how much of this information is valid and retained or if the programs are offered so a “box” can be checked. This is not intended to cast any aspersions, only to point out some of the challenges that departments face as they work to establish and maintain the necessary competencies for this important job function.
Identify an Expert
There are opportunities for departments to better prepare personnel and their organizations. Each organization should have at least one “expert” in this field. The size of the department and the potential risks it faces will determine how many are needed. In larger departments, there is probably a hazmat response team. In smaller organizations, there can be regional response capabilities. One can venture a guess that some smaller organizations with limited response capabilities have not prepared much for a hazmat response. That should be a conscious decision based on resources and threats.
An in-house expert is invaluable in helping prepare the organization for a response. He should be on top of the issues and the latest developments. The world of hazmat response is evolving much faster than fire response. There are new chemicals (and related hazards) being developed, discovered, or invented. New technologies to handle releases and spills are being produced, and regulations are being reviewed and rewritten. There is a lot to know. Only an individual with the right mindset can stay on top of everything. He can then sift through all the information and determine the appropriate level of information and training that needs to be presented to the entire department.
Staying motivated for any length of time for infrequent emergencies is a challenge to everyone. In the area of hazmat response, there is much to be learned and few opportunities to put the lessons into practice. It takes sound leadership and management to keep an organization prepared for low-frequency but high-risk events. When an organization has personnel willing to commit time and energy in these areas, it must get creative to support the individuals and keep the motivation high. I realize there are restrictions such as labor agreements and budgetary considerations, but an effort must be made to reward those willing to step up to the challenge. And, it is not always about money (though it should not be discounted.) There are other things that can be done to create a good work environment. Leaders should always be able to reward high performers in one way or another.
Response to emergencies involving hazardous materials can be very technical and challenging to fire departments. They are not as simple as a structure fire where it is a matter of overcoming the Btus being generated (provided there is not a rescue). Hazmat responses are methodical and seldom rushed. They must follow standards and regulations that are much more specific than those applicable to firefighting. It is a different mindset and requires personnel committed to the cause. Individuals who take on this challenge must be supported and used to help prepare the entire department. Sometimes infrequent emergencies cause organizations to overlook the requirements to be prepared. Regular and routine commitment is necessary by the department 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.