If you look at how fire departments respond to incidents involving hazardous materials, you might wonder how the same people who rush into fires take such a different approach.
Consider preparation (education and training), equipment, rules, regulations, standards, operations, rehab, physical examinations, and decontamination approaches. There are more, and there are good reasons for the approach taken. We can learn a lot from this that can make department operations more efficient and effective as well as less risky when the risk/benefit is not appropriate.
Those who opt to specialize in hazardous materials (hazmat) response take it on themselves to become more educated. This could be combination of the type of people who respond and the regulations that require specific training based on the type of action to be taken. There are levels of training and certification—awareness, operations, technician, and specialist. Assignments are made based on the level of certification, and organizations are only supposed to provide service to the level at which they are prepared and staffed. Contrast this with a fire response where levels of training do not come into play when selecting strategy and tactics in many circumstances—nor does staffing! Take, for example, the two-in/two-out rule. There is an exception if life is in danger. The hazmat standards do not make exceptions.
It could be argued that most hazmat teams spend a great deal of time preparing for very low-frequency events. Fortunately, there are few major or significant incidents involving toxic chemicals that result from spills, leaks, ruptures, and the like. But, those involved with response teams take a sound approach to be ready should the rare event occur. They also know there may be a need for different approaches, depending on the circumstances. They monitor weather and other factors that influence the emergency. It is a very logical approach and offers lessons that can be learned for other emergencies.
Now look at the equipment and protective clothing for hazmat responses. There are specific suits that are used for specific situations. If the suits are not available, then there is no entry. As part of any team, there are monitors to check to see if the atmosphere is safe and to determine the level of protection necessary. If there are no monitors, then there is no entry. The list can go on, but you should begin to see the picture. In a regulated response, rules are to be followed, or there are consequences. Contrast this with the approach taken by many fire departments and firefighters to a fire. How many firefighters (with the backing of their officers and fire departments) will take a shortcut to attempt to accomplish the mission during a fire response? Now, ask how many of those same people will do the same when the emergency involves an unknown chemical and no fire?
Rules, Regulations, and Standards
The discussion about this approach to response and operations continues with a look at rules, regulations, and standards. There are Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, CFRs, and other mandatory standards. Responders are expected to know these and comply or face consequences such as fines. A well-trained and well-prepared response team will do the proper research and will be very methodical in its approach to mitigating a situation. There will be no haste or rushing into unknown areas. There will be calculated decisions and no guesswork. If information is not available, there will be research to gain the facts necessary to make good decisions. Staffing must be adequate before entry is made. Contrast this with fire response. There are few regulations (two in/two out comes to mind, and the fire service demanded an exemption, so it can deviate if necessary). Even when National Fire Protection Association standards exist, many departments pick and choose their areas of compliance.
Think of how hazmat response teams approach the health and well-being of their members. It starts with a comprehensive physical to get a baseline. There are then annual requirements to make sure that not only are the responders in the proper condition, but that also they have not had any changes to their health that could be attributed to a response to particular chemicals or other hazards. On the scene, those who enter the hot zone will only do so if the protective equipment is appropriate for the hazard and worn properly. There are no shortcuts. There will be quality control personnel who will check to make sure everything is done right. When leaving the hazard zone, decontamination will take place. There are requirements to formally establish rehab on the scene, including hydration, nutrition, vital signs, and cooling. Contaminated equipment is either cleaned or disposed of. Departments should ask themselves how many require physicals for all members annually, if their people wear their personal protective equipment properly, and if decontamination and rehab take place on every scene. While there are standards, if no mandate exists, shortcuts may be taken.
Safety officers are important components of hazmat operations. Regulations require that a safety officer be assigned, and that person must be trained to at least the technician level. There is the understanding that this is a position that can make a difference with regard to the overall health and well-being of the responders—not only on the scene but for the long haul. Using a qualified person sends a message that the role of safety officer is not just a position to be filled but a vital component of the incident management system. There is an understanding of the responsibilities, and the safety officer’s opinions and views are greatly respected by the incident commander. It is a critical position in the command staff. No “offensive attacks” occur without a safety officer.
Hazmat team responses take a different approach to incidents as compared to fire response. They are much more methodical and more averse to risk taking. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from this approach. When you consider these differing viewpoints, you may wonder how a profession with such risk takers assumed responsibilities that slow the process down. There is a combination of regulations and a fear of the unknown (i.e., what is the hazard?) that have led to a more systematic response. Considering that the smoke content of almost all fires is a hazmat incident, perhaps it is time to review our approach. I am not suggesting that firefighters not put out fires but more to look at the entire package of training; protective clothing; health and safety of firefighters including fitness, rehab, and decon; and anything else that minimizes unnecessary risk.
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.