The instruction and training of first responders throughout the country, no matter what their previous level of experience, in how to deal with incidents involving the potential presence of hazardous materials is today several times more challenging than ever before in the nation’s history. There are several reasons for this potentially lethal escalation, including the fact that there are now more hazardous materials of all types available in virtually every major community, and an abundance of evidence indicates that hazardous materials have become a clear weapon of choice for international terrorists.

The ability to determine the presence of various biological, chemical, and other hazardous materials is a rare and increasingly valuable skill, therefore, not only for hazmat technicians themselves but also for the firemen, policemen, emergency medical services (EMS) personnel, and other first responders whose duties take them to the scene of a major disaster, natural or manmade, that causes a large number of deaths and/or injuries. The presence, or suspected presence, of hazardous materials dictates a cautious and more time-consuming approach in entering the scene, in retrieving victims, and in treating – possibly decontaminating – those victims.

Time is almost always in very short supply in such situations, though – victims who are not treated immediately might well die, or be crippled for the rest of their lives. For that reason, current hazmat training typically focuses on a step-by-step approach that combines speed with effectiveness – and achieves both through comprehensive and detailed room instruction accompanied by repeated drills and exercises across a broad spectrum of disaster scenarios.

Intensive and Repeated Training Mandatory

The keys to the development of a model training curriculum, of course, are the recruitment and use of instructors who are totally knowledgeable in the subject matter with which they are dealing, whose delivery and overall room presence make the topic interesting to the trainees, and who – usually because of their own professional experiences – are able to provide and supervise an abundance of meaningful hands-on practical training drills. A thorough knowledge of the dangers inherent in the improper handling of hazardous materials, the ability to impart that knowledge to hazmat trainees, and the time and talent – as well as considerable effort – required to schedule and oversee a challenging series of hands-on practical drills are the hallmarks of the most effective instructors in this field, and their curriculum supervisors.

Cities and counties fortunate enough to have specially trained and designated hazmat units that can respond immediately to an incident involving hazardous materials have a distinct advantage in scheduling and carrying out both team and individual training. In addition to being able to cover more, and more complex, topics in their training curricula, they also usually have on their staffs a number of instructors who are experts on such highly specialized subjects as gas and/or chemical detection systems and devices, railroad tank cars, the hazmat incident command system, and similar topics.  

The Hazardous Incident Response Team (HIRT) in Montgomery County, Maryland, is not necessarily typical of all or even most current hazmat teams, but it is certainly representative of a large number of such teams throughout the country. Captain Gregory Socks, the team’s designated hazmat training officer, is responsible for, among other duties, the development and management of the room training and hands-on drills and exercises, and personally carries out much of the room instruction. He is assisted by a number of other highly qualified professionals – including, to cite another example, HazMat Technician Thomas Miller, whose knowledge of and experience with numerous detection instruments, ranging from a carbon monoxide detector to a portable gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, makes him a uniquely valuable member of the instruction team.  

Two Challenges: Terrorism, and Decontamination

Perhaps the greatest current training challenge in the hazmat field is ensuring that the hazmat team’s personnel are adequately prepared to deal with a terrorist-related incident, particularly one that involves an explosion and/or the intentional release of a radiological or super-toxic chemical material. To deal with an incident in which numerous injuries already have occurred not only to civilians at or close to the incident scene but also to the initial first responders arriving at the site, the Montgomery HIRT has developed a detailed “rapid entry” plan – written out as a standard operating guideline – which stipulates that HIRT personnel responding to the incident must enter the area of possible hazmat dispersion armed with appropriate detection and monitoring equipment.

The reason for this approach is to either verify the presence of any hazardous substance – or confirm that such substances have not been detected. This process must be carried out quickly – preferably within 15 minutes after hazardous-material assets arrive at the scene – so that injured victims suffering from various injuries do not have to be unnecessarily decontaminated on the scene.

This approach may at first glance seem to be overly cautious, but it is definitely achievable by, among other things, a combination of taking and recording vital signs for the entry and back-up team personnel during shift line-ups, frequent training on the process to develop speed as well as competency, and ensuring that a hoseline is available on-scene that can be used for emergency decontamination before anyone enters the hot zone. Another precautionary step, taken during the initial entry, is the setup by other hazmat personnel of an on-scene decontamination system. Verifying the absence of toxic substances permits the immediate transport of trauma victims and their subsequent treatment at a fully staffed hospital or medical clinic. Without such verification, those victims would have to be decontaminated before being taken to a medical facility.

Jurisdictional and Other Complications

The need for hazmat training is not limited to the members of hazmat teams, but also should be required for firemen, policemen, EMS and bomb-squad personnel, and other responders, all of whom should be trained to the operations level. The training of these fellow first responders preferably should be carried out by hazmat personnel, teaching from a well designed program, who also are familiar with the Hazardous Materials Awareness- and Operations-level requirements (which are set forth in a number of current regulations and instructions).

These same personnel should also routinely be trained – again, preferably by hazmat team instructors – to ensure that all responders at the scene are fully aware of what each agency’s responsibilities will be when a significant hazardous-material incident occurs. These areas of responsibility should be clearly identified in the local jurisdiction’s Emergency Operation Plans. In addition, the various levels of operational proficiency required, usually spelled out in those same plans, should be achieved and validated through practical training processes. Experience shows: (a) that this approach is the optimum way to achieve a seamless response by all of the agencies involved in a particular incident; and (b) that such a response is possible only through the mutual training of all responders working and training together.

The combined drills and exercises prescribed above will pay large dividends during and in the aftermath of any significant event requiring a multi-agency response. The time for fostering solid operational relationships between agencies and individuals through essential training is of course before an incident occurs. Here it should be noted that effective inter-agency training may not always be easily accomplished, if only because of potential “territorial” concerns involving what each participating agency believes are its own areas of expertise and responsibility. Mutual training among agencies is the best and sometimes only way to break down these potential jurisdictional barriers.

A Resource and Capabilities Multiplier

Another important consideration, of increasing importance in recent years, is that hazmat personnel responding to CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiation, nuclear, explosives) events must be able to meet the unique challenges inherent in such events and to carry out their difficult tasks without becoming casualties themselves. Training carried out in chemical protective clothing, combined with a thorough operational understanding of the various monitoring and detection devices required at the scene of such incidents, will be of paramount importance in the successful management of a catastrophic hazmat incident.

If all these and other challenges are not sufficient, all hazardous material technicians also must be recertified annually in accordance with the various regulations spelled out in current federal, state, and local rules and regulations manuals. Most fire and rescue-sponsored hazmat teams also ensure that their members conform to the National Fire Protection Association’s Hazardous Material Technician Consensus Standards, which cover the competencies that personnel assigned to a hazmat team must not just master but also demonstrate under the supervision of a certified hazmat instructor or his/her designee.

With limited technical resources likely to be available, valid hazardous materials training, repeated often, can and should be a genuine capability multiplier both for the hazmat team itself and for the other first-responder agencies and organizations with which it works.

Robert (Bob) Stephan

Robert (Bob) Stephan is Managing Director of Dutko Global Risk Management, a core enterprise of the Washington, DC-based strategic consulting firm Dutko Worldwide. Prior to assuming his current position, he served in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), from 2005 to 2008, as the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Infrastructure Protection. In that post, he was responsible for the Departments efforts to catalog the nations critical infrastructures and key resources, develop the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, and coordinate the risk-based strategies and protective measures needed to secure U.S. infrastructures from terrorist attack and facilitate their timely restoration in the aftermath of natural disasters and other emergencies. In an earlier DHS assignment, he served as Special Assistant to the Secretary and as Director of the Secretary's Headquarters Operational Integration Staff.

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