Hazardous Materials Incident Response in France


In France, 150,000 firefighters (38,000 full time, 12,000 military for Paris and Marseilles, and 204,000 volunteer firefighters) protect 65 million inhabitants. Fire department calls are broken down as follows: fire (9%), car accident rescues (8%), medical emergencies (65%), and other operations (18%). In 2006, the Defence and Civil Safety Inspection Department counted 3.8 million operations that included 25,000 for gas leaks; 19,500 for unknown smells or leaks; and 6,700 for various types of pollution or other hazmat contaminations.

Hazardous goods are transported by road (76%), railways (16%), and rivers and pipelines. For the chemical accidents, most of the 100 French fire and rescue services (by departments ≈ states) have a hazardous materials incident response team.


In the 1920s, just after World War I, France found its first equipment against chemical/biological/nuclear (CBN) attack in the military corps of the Paris Fire Department.

In the 1970s, because of their local industrial risk, some fire stations bought or received equipment from chemical plants to respond to a hazardous materials incident. It was mostly chemical protective suits and small equipment like booms and explosimeters.

A few years later, in 1986, a group of specialists, The Angers Group, met in Angers to define the mission of the future hazardous materials response team (HMRT). Hazmat teams were officially created in France a few years later. On May 14, 1986, the ministry for the interior (home office) signed the text of the official creation of hazardous materials response teams. This legal text defined the missions and the composition of the units in materials and the training level. Two levels of units were created: the chemical assessment unit and the chemical risk identification unit.

The French government gave a subsidy to 15 fire departments (especially those in industrial areas) to create official units (Cellule mobile d’interventions chimiques) (CMIC). Between 1986 and 1990, 36 hazmat units were created. All the industrial departments have a fire department with a HMRT. A few departments (Paris, Marseilles, and Lyon, for example) operate with mass decontamination units.


After the sarin subway attack in Tokyo in March 1995, and especially at the end of 2001 after the World Trade Center attacks and the bacillus anthracis envelopes, the fire and rescue services were largely implicated in chemical/biological/radioactive, nuclear (CBRN) operations. They were equipped with specific materials like chemical weapon (CW) detectors and mass decontamination units. Currently, approximately 50 large fire departments are equipped with these complete decontamination units.

(1) CBRN exercise at the Montbeliard Police Academy. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)
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In March 2006, the National Training Guideline for Biological and Chemical Accident Response Team was published. This document fixes four training levels:

  • Level 1: Hazmat First Responder (assessment unit),
  • Level 2: Hazmat Technician (response unit),
  • Level 3: Hazmat Team Leader, and
  • Level 4: Hazmat Specialist (technical advisor—fire department hazmat coordinator).

(2) CW detection during decontamination operations.
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Levels 1 and 2 are taught in specific fire departments. Level 3 is taught in each of the seven “civil safety zones.” Level 4 is taught once a year in the National Fire Officers Academy.

(3) The CW identification team, in Level A protection, is decontaminated.
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The HMRT’s mission is to respond to any hazmat release and direct operations while keeping as priorities the safety of the personnel and citizens and protection of the environment. The HMRT assists first-responding fire companies and performs the proper corrective actions to mitigate the chemical release.

(4) Victim decontamination.
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The HMRT is also the main response arm of CBRN operations. Its members are trained to identify chemical agents, take samples, and supervise mass-decontamination operations. The HMRT works in specific collaboration with the fire department medical service (doctors and nurses involved in the treatment of victims in contaminated areas or during decontamination operations).

(5) Mass contamination structure.
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This document determines the missions of the recognition and operating teams. For each unit, it gives a list of necessary equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE). The minimum training levels for HMRT units are as follow:

  • HMRT Assessment Unit: three hazmat first responders (Level 1);
  • HMRT Response Unit: three hazmat technicians (Level 2); and
  • CMIC: at least one assessment unit, one response unit, and one team leader (Level 3).


The Moselle Fire Department hazmat team is comprised of six specialists, 40 team leaders, and 300 technicians and first responders. A partnership with local industry and a mutual-aid agreement for transport accidents have been established. Another specific unit of the fire department manages radiological risks (nuclear power plants, sources, and accidents).

(6) Acrylate accident. (Courtesy of the Sarreguemines Fire Station.)
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HMRT personnel provide basic fire suppression and emergency medical first responder service in addition to responding to hazmat incidents. A minimum of five hazmat technicians per unit are on duty 24 hours a day.

(7) LPG burning after a truck accident.
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The department response is built around seven hazmat response units, each comprised of one team leader, three hazmat technicians, and two hazmat first responders.

(8) Exercise involving a railcar in the Woippy rail yard (the largest in France).
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These days, the hazmat team responds to an average of 150 calls a year, not including local engine runs for natural gas leaks, carbon monoxide detection, and small fuel spills. Sixty-six percent of the operations involve flammable liquids. Recently, the team responded to two unusual accidents: the Zoufftgen disaster (a head-on train collision) and an explosion of World War I munitions storage.

(9) A simulated truck liquid nitrogen leak.
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HMRTs also respond to biological risk operations. The units, in 2001, were regularly engaged in assessing possibly contaminated envelopes. The unit also is engaged in events involving biological laboratories. This past summer, the department was called to investigate bird flu. A special team was created to respond to these special operations in collaboration with the veterinary department.


HMRT vehicles are housed in different fire stations and are dispatched throughout the department’s response area. Special vehicles include six hazmat response units; one support hazmat unit, which can also be used as a regular response unit; one basic laboratory van; one CBRN decon unit; and one CBRN evacuation van with respiratory protection for the population. The CBRN unit carries mass decontamination equipment (a CBRN tent, showers, a water heater, CBRN PPE, CW detectors, decontamination kits, victim respiratory protection, and re-dress equipment).

The hazmat units carry monitoring instruments and identification equipment (explosimeters, specific gas detection monitors, PIDs, colorimetric tubes, CW detectors, pH meters, basic spectrometers); PPE (Level A encapsulated suits, level B disposable coveralls); respiratory protection (SCBA, filter air masks, biological masks); spill- and leak-control equipment (adsorbent booms and sheets, plug/patch kits, overpack drums, nonsparking tool kits); and decontamination equipment (shower).


A team supervisor, assisted by hazmat specialists and a biological hazard specialist, leads the HMRT. These specialists are assigned specific missions such as training, emergency planning, and equipment.

Training Requirements

Training for responder levels 1 and 2 is conducted at the local (fire station) or departmental level. Team leaders (level 3) are trained at the departmental level. Hazmat specialists (level 4) are trained at the “zonal” and national levels. All the hazmat supervisors of the 18 departments of the East Zone of France meet three or four times a year for training. Additionally, each hazmat specialist has to be trained every five years at the National Officer Fire Academy in Aix en Provence.


For technological accidents, the on-scene incident commander (IC) is not necessarily a hazmat specialist. To manage this operation, the IC can call a specialist, who will be his technical advisor. Divisions or subdivisions (maximum four per level) are created to divide the operation into geographical or functional sectors. Figure 1 shows an example of an incident command system.

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The hazmat operation begins at the dispatch room. As described in a “traditional” hazmat incident or in a specific CBRN attack emergency plan, operators must determine if hazardous substances are involved in the operation—specific placards on the truck, victims’ symptoms, color, smell, large or small spill, for example. Specific groups are dispatched to the operation; the IC organizes the response on-scene.

First responders are generally not specialists, but all of them attended a hazmat awareness program in their general firefighting training. They have to recognize the risk and perform conservatory basic control, containment, or confinement operations within the capabilities of the equipment available and the personal protective equipment on the fire engine.

If an exposure to the chemical is necessary—to rescue a victim, for example—the exposure has to be as short as possible. Some fire departments are now equipping all their fire pumpers with chemical protective disposable coveralls. They are also taking care of victims and establishing the first “a priori” isolation perimeter [50 or 100 m for a small regular spill; 100 to 300 m for a large spill; 500 m for a tank or railcar boiling-liquid, expanding-vapor explosion (BLEVE) risk].

The Hazmat Team

The hazmat team performs an additional assessment, adjusting the isolation perimeter. The area within is subdivided into three zones with distinct lines of demarcation:

  • The exclusion zone, where specialists with specific PPE are operating.
  • The control zone, where only personnel directly involved in the response are present (decon, specific equipment of the HMRT). Responders can use regular fire gear or specific PPE for the decontamination, for example.
  • The support zone, where the others involved in the rescue are present (command post, on-site medical hospital, public information officer, other administrations, for example).

An access control point, with a decontamination corridor, is established between the exclusion and control zones.

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The HMRT chooses the appropriate PPE and performs additional control, containment, or confinement operations; measurement; and sampling. Most of the time, two responders are working in the exclusion zone. Two other responders, wearing the same or a lower level of protection, are positioned in the control area as safety responders.

These few rules have to be respected in an operation:

  • The safety of the operation should be the hazmat team leader’s main objective.
  • Victim assistance and fire risk have priority over chemical risk (except for specific CW agents).
  • The two responders always work and stay together.

SAMUEL GESRET, a 20-year veteran of the French fire service, is a lieutenant-colonel and the operation chief of the Moselle Fire and Rescue Service. He was previously the hazardous materials response team supervisor for the Yvelines and Doubs. He is also the assistant hazmat coordinator for the East Zone of France and a member of the hazmat commission of the French National Fire Department Federation. He was also the hazmat instructor coordinator for the National Officer Fire Academy for three years. He is a graduate of the Grenoble University (Institut des sciences et techniques de Grenoble), has a master’s degree in industrial safety engineering, and is working toward a Ph.D. at the Ecole des Mines d’Ales.

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