Lessons Learned from Hazmat Training and Response

Rich Marinucci breaks down fire departments' varying levels of response to hazmat incidents.
When the public has an emergency and it is not solely a law enforcement issue, the fire department is notified. This would include incidents involving the accidental (or maybe even the intentional) discharge of hazardous materials.

It was not too long ago that these were handled just like every other run. Firefighters used their experience and ingenuity to figure out a solution. Training was not mandated, and there were varying levels of expectations and competencies. Things are so much different, from training to the approach taken during the emergency.

Arguably, the most significant driver of fire department response has been the establishment of laws, rules, and standards. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) all have a say in how emergency events involving hazmat will be handled. These are not regional; applicable to only large departments; applicable to only organized special response teams; or separated by urban, suburban, or rural. They are not created by states, nor are they optional.

All agencies responding to hazmat events are expected to handle the emergency properly and according to regulations. This is not to say that every department is trained to the same level and can perform the same functions. It does mean that organizations must remain within their capabilities and not exceed their training and certification levels. While states will provide the training and certification, it must be done to recognized national standards, regulations, rules, and best practices. Compare this to the training and certification required for firefighting. The varying levels among states, allowable approaches, and needed tools are acceptable. One might ask why this approach to firefighting and response to hazmat is so different. This is more of a rhetorical question.

Some fire departments have taken the approach of limiting actions when responding to hazmat events. They will receive the call, turn out, identify the situation, and then call the appropriate resources. Larger departments have established their teams with the appropriate training and certification. Another approach taken by mostly medium-size departments has been to form regional teams. Regardless of the organization, everyone is expected to be prepared for what they may face. Imagine if the same sort of regulations were in place for firefighting. What would change and what would be the pushback from fire departments, firefighters, and even communities?

Historically and culturally, there are different approaches to these responsibilities. The fire service has a long history of responding and taking significant risks to help the citizens. In many cases, this risk taking may be considered excessive for the hazard and benefit (risk/benefit considerations). One doesn’t have to see too many incidents to know that often significant risks are taken to protect property, often knowing the result will be a demolished building. Contrast this to the approach taken for fire department responses to hazmat emergencies. While there are considerations for humans in the danger zone, once life safety considerations are complete, seldom, if ever, are unnecessary risks taken to protect property. Perhaps that is due to firefighters either understanding the risks of certain chemicals or just the indoctrination received regarding hazmat events.

Many of the initial actions after arriving on the scene of a hazmat incident involve completing research to ascertain the chemical and determine the best course of action (incident action plan). This can be relatively fast or may take longer if the chemical is unknown and resources are limited. It is an emergency without the sense of urgency that most other incidents have. One could argue that the thought process is a combination of not wanting to make the situation worse and understanding the risk/benefit model. Maybe it is because it doesn’t offer the same thrill to firefighters as a working structure fire does. But fires involving today’s materials produce many “hazmat chemicals” with some research indicating more than 200 different ones that, if the result of a leak, would require the response of a trained hazmat team. We should find this somewhat ironic.

For hazmat responses to emergencies, preparation is involved, and not all firefighters are interested in doing the bare minimum. Most agencies and states require training up to the operations level. That is plenty for many. Those getting to the technician level must do more and continue their learning to maintain the level of competence necessary. They also know that they may go a long time between emergencies, yet they have the mindset to be prepared. This might also have something to do with the regulations that are not optional. I wonder what firefighting would look like if it took the same approach and had similar regulations? The guess is that organizations would be much better at their core responsibilities.

Once a fire is cleared of life safety issues, fire departments should take a more measured approach to resolving the issue at hand. This is not to say that fire departments should not do their best to extinguish the fire as quickly as possible. But maybe if there was a slight pause to think things through and select the best overall strategy (incident action plan), better results would be produced along with fewer unnecessary risks to responders. If similar OSHA or EPA regulations were in place that would standardize response and look to protection for responders, fire departments would change their ways or be subject to consequences. So, departments should be more proactive and look to lessons learned from the approach taken by hazmat teams when faced with an emergency.

One might wonder how a firefighter instinctively responds to structure fires with minimal risk/benefit thinking and can then flip a switch and take an entirely different approach if the call has a chemical involved. Somewhere in the middle should be a goal for all firefighters, regardless of whether they are part of a hazmat team. Carefully consider the rewards vs. the dangers and predict the outcome. Is the outcome likely to be different if we take shortcuts and unnecessary risks? This is a combination of preparation, competence, experience, and establishing a philosophical approach but it is also a contrast to years of firefighting history and culture. At some point, there should be civil and reasonable discussions to see what makes sense for similar types of emergencies. Again, I would emphasize that putting out the fire is a good thing, and I am not advocating otherwise. It is about establishing standards (maybe even nationally), maintaining a high level of competence regardless of the actual number or responses, and systematically looking at the risk and benefit.

Fire departments have varying levels of response to hazmat incidents, with differing levels of capabilities. Regardless of their commitment to response, there are lessons to be learned from the preparation needed should an event occur. Some concepts transfer naturally to fire response, while others have a uniqueness. Departments should not only prepare for a potential bad day due to a hazmat incident but should also mainstream ideas that make sense.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief (ret.) of the White Lake Township (MI) Fire Department. 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.

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