Haz-mat Survival Tips: First Responder Knowledge Assessment

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 24

By Steven De Lisi

A major factor that can positively influence the safety of first responders (career and volunteer) is ensuring that all personnel possess the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities related to their specific job functions. This is especially true when dealing with incidents that involve hazardous materials, in which there is little room for error.

As we begin a new year, it is always an appropriate time to conduct a skills assessment of personnel assigned to your station, including yourself. Are there some skills we all just take for granted? Do you find yourself commenting, after a less-than-stellar performance of your coworkers, “They should have known better?” Never assume anything.

The following 10 questions can be incorporated into a daily training session or even posed to personnel during morning roll call. Before the next run, make sure everyone knows the correct answers.

1. Do you know who is legally in charge of a hazardous materials incident in your community? What is the designated role for law enforcement during an incident? You may need to check local and state laws to be sure. Can you identify the specific laws to support your answer?

2. If a four-gas atmospheric monitor is carried on assigned apparatus, personnel responsible for its use should be able to answer the following questions:


  • What type of gas is used to calibrate the combustible gas indicator?

  • What is the correction factor to be used with the combustible gas indicator when attempting to measure the concentration of gases other than the calibration gas?

  • What is the response time required to obtain a reading?

  • What additional response time is required when using an extendable probe?

3. Does your station have copies of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) submitted to your fire department by local businesses in your community? If not, do you know how to access these documents? At 3:00 a.m.?

4. If there is foam concentrate carried on assigned apparatus, personnel responsible for its use should be able to answer the following questions:


  • Can the foam concentrate be used on nonpolar solvents, such as diesel fuel and gasoline, and polar solvents such as alcohol?

  • What is the dilution ratio for the concentrate?
  • If the concentrate can be used on both polar and nonpolar solvents, is there a different dilution ratio for each? If so, what is it?

  • Can the foam concentrate be added directly to a booster tank or must it be applied using a foam eductor?

  • How much water would be needed to support the dilution ratios discussed earlier?

  • What is the largest sized-spill fire that could be fought using the amount of concentrate carried?

5. If a foam eductor is used, personnel responsible for its use should be able to answer the following questions:


  • What is the inlet pressure of the eductor when it is attached to the pump panel?

  • What is the flow rate of the eductor, and does this match the flow rate of the foam nozzle?

  • What is the maximum length of hose that can be used between the eductor and the foam nozzle?

6. If an absorbent is carried on assigned apparatus, are there any materials that are incompatible with the absorbent?

7. If absorbent pads are carried on assigned apparatus, are there are any materials which are incompatible with the pads?

8. What is your department’s policy regarding a response to the activation of a carbon monoxide (CO) detector in a building? If a four-gas detector is used to evaluate the CO concentration in any occupancy, what is the highest CO level acceptable up to which you may safety allow the building to be reoccupied?

9. What are the capabilities of local hospitals in your area to decontaminate a patient who arrives at the emergency department following exposure to a hazardous material? Can they decontaminate more than one patient simultaneously, and if so, how many? If they have no decontamination capabilities, do they expect the local fire department to perform this task? If so, are all personnel prepared to react when taking into consideration the particulars of each hospital? Remember to consider site access, scene control, water supply, and runoff into storm drains.

10. Propane and natural gas are two of the most common fuel gases used today, yet there is often confusion regarding the vapor density of these materials. One is lighter than air, whereas the other is heavier. Do personnel know the difference?

Bonus Question! Is the latest edition of the Emergency Response Guidebook (2004 ERG) on every emergency response vehicle assigned to your station? The answer might surprise you!

Click here for more info on Steven De Lisi’s book, Hazardous Materials Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response.

Steven M. De Lisi retired after a fire service career spanning 27 years that included serving as a regional training manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP) and most recently as the deputy chief for the Virginia Air Guard Fire Rescue. De Lisi is a hazardous materials specialist; he continues to coordinate a statewide training program for the investigation of environmental crimes as an adjunct instructor for VDFP. De Lisi began his career in hazardous-materials response in 1982 as a member of the hazmat team with the Newport News (VA) Fire Department. Since then, he has also served as a hazardous materials officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management; in that capacity, he provided on-scene assistance to first responders involved with hazardous-materials incidents in an area that included more than 20 local jurisdictions.

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