A New Approach To HAZ-MAT Chemistry


A very humorous cartoon de-picts a rotund scientist in a lab coat at a chalkboard writing a bevy of formulas complete with symbols, letters, and numerals. In the middle of all this complex scientific notation is the phrase “CALL TECH SUPPORT.” Ironic humor aside, on a deeper level, there is a message in this cartoon for all hazardous-materials responders: We don’t have to have all the answers, but we should know where to find them. This is especially true with chemical information in haz-mat response.


The importance of chemistry study is undeniable, especially for haz-mat response team personnel. Knowing chemical terms and concepts is paramount to efficiently and effectively interpreting material safety data sheets (MSDSs), shipping papers, and resource and reference materials. Our peers on haz-mat standards making committees at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) also think these concepts are important, since they have identified chemical terms that all responders should know. These terms are listed in NFPA 472, Standard for Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents-1997, for the haz-mat Operations, Technician, and Specialist levels.

Remember, this consensus document is a minimum standard with which response agencies should strive to comply, not just for legal reasons but also for responder safety. Although terminology is emphasized, responders also need to know how to interpret the data pertaining to the appropriate term.

The importance of studying chemistry has also been echoed by other haz-mat notables. Eugene Meyer, a retired haz-mat responder and author, states in his book Chemistry of Hazardous Materials,1 “It is essential for the contemporary fire fighter to be prepared for the hazards associated with these materials that may be encountered.” Likewise, another haz-mat author and educator, Michael Callan, writes that “emergency responders cannot begin to deal with hazardous material emergencies without a basic grasp of chemistry.” Callan, along with co-authors Jonathan Borak and William Abbott in their book Hazardous Materials Exposure,2 goes on to state, “Knowledge about the behavior of a chemical and the sequential course of its activity when released is crucial to manage an emergency safely and effectively.” Simply stated, chemistry knowledge will make you a better, safer, and more effective responder.


As much as our occupation requires a minimum of chemistry knowledge, many responders fear chemistry training, which has prevented many of them from enrolling in a chemistry course and from applying themselves at their home department internal training sessions. Many responders also resist information that they do not see any practical application for out on the street. Frank Fire, another well-known advocate of chemistry training and the author of The Common Sense Guide to Hazardous Materials,3 says that first, responders need to get over the “sheer terror” of the word chemistry. An effective chemistry course should be job-applicable and enjoyable for participants.


Most people recognize chemistry training’s importance, but how much is required? Some states do not require any chemistry training, while some require many hours. For instance, California requires 80 hours for all responders to be certified as technicians. Although a complete lack of chemistry knowledge is woefully inadequate, a requirement for hundreds of training hours is excessive, especially in times of limited training funds and competition with other technical training disciplines. Somewhere in between should be sufficient.

A chemistry course similar to the National Fire Academy’s (NFA) 80-hour Chemistry of Hazardous Materials course would be reasonable. If nonchemical information (e.g., placards, labels, containers, and the nine Department of Transportation hazard classes) is eliminated, the course can be cut back to approximately 40 hours and remain effective.

Developed more than 20 years ago by the NFA’s Jan Kucszma and others, the NFA course might be called “street chemistry.” It stresses recognition of a chemical compound’s hazards by its name or formula. While the course does cover a great deal of information, it focuses on the basics. Many who successfully completed the course left greatly satisfied.

Unfortunately, the course is no longer offered at the NFA because of low enrollment, but it may be offered at the state level as an outreach course. A new chemistry course is now under development and will be offered at the NFA in the near future, with information on phosphorous and nerve agent chemistry, among other topics.


Many chemistry courses cover reams of chemistry information that is largely beneficial for students planning to enter professions where such knowledge is crucial to success. This is not the case for most first responders and haz-mat response personnel. For responders, it is important to separate the nice-to-know from the need-to-know information. It makes no sense to cover material that is not applicable to a responder in the field. How important are the many hours of laboratory time conducted for responders? Do responders really need to know about electron sub-energy levels, quantum theories, and how many moles of a material there are in a liter of solution? In most cases, the answer is a resounding “No!” Responders need the basic, need-to-know chemistry information to do their jobs safely and efficiently.


Albert Einstein, while perhaps one of the most intelligent humans who has ever lived, believed in expressing things in the simplest terms possible. Einstein’s way of dealing with information is an example of how to manage an immense amount of data and retain accuracy. He said, “It’s not important to store a great deal of information in your head. What is important is knowing how to find the information elsewhere when needed.” For example, lawyers research court cases and appropriate precedents in law libraries. Why shouldn’t emergency haz-mat responders do the same?

Many response agencies require packing so much chemistry information into responders’ heads. Across the country, haz-mat responder teams must attend college-level chemistry courses. This seems counterproductive, especially since many people resist chemistry, and it is observed that chemistry information is stored in the student’s short-term memory only to be purged as soon as the course concludes. So what did the responders gain by attending the course and being force-fed the chemistry information? In retrospect, it may be a waste of time and money.

In George Carlin’s book, Brain Droppings,4 he writes, “The wisest man I ever knew taught me something I never forgot. And although I never forgot it, I never quite memorized it either. So what I’m left with is the memory of having learned something very wise that I can’t quite remember.” This humorous insight also applies to teaching responders chemistry. Perhaps we are teaching responders too much “what to think” instead of “how to think.”

Highly technical information is rarely retained, especially if it is not used often. A good example is the chemical identification kits introduced about 20 years ago. While the concept was good and the kits provided a low-cost alternative for identifying unknown chemicals, they were highly technical, requiring significant training to attain proficiency in their use. Consequently, many response teams abandoned the kits, opting for less expensive and less technical kits and techniques. Besides, how often is an unknown material released in this era of performance standards and chemical responsibility?

Training should focus more on chemistry terminology and data interpretation and less on lab procedures, stoichiometry, and atomic structures. All this information is nice to know, but it has very little practical value on the streets or in the field. The need-to-know information is how to find the released product’s chemical and physical hazards once it has been positively identified. Responders must be able to classify a hazardous material release to find its generic hazards and then be able to access reliable and accurate resources. These include CHEMTRECT®, the National Response Center (NRC), the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), chemical manufacturers, Web site databases, computer databases (e.g., TOMES PlusT Toxicology, Occupational Medicine, and Environmental Series), poison control centers, and so forth.

A better alternative to teaching college-level chemistry is teaching “street chemistry” that stresses recognizing a material’s hazards by its name or formula. Once a product has been identified, it can be generically classified into a group of chemical compounds with specific hazards.


A classification flowchart (see Figure 1 on page 121) was developed to augment the street chemistry course and assist in categorizing an identified chemical compound. This flowchart guides the user in how to think at a haz-mat emergency. Personnel have achieved effective flowchart proficiency in as little as 90 minutes of instruction.

The Process

Use the hazardous-materials classification flowchart in conjunction with the periodic table.

1. Identify the chemical(s) released by name or formula. Check for synonyms and IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists) names.

2. If the material includes a metal in its name or formula, then proceed to the left side of the flowchart. These compounds are called “salts” in chemistry because they are composed of a metal and a non-metal element or elements attached ionically (electrovalently). A metal is any element that is positioned to the left of the bold stair-step line on the right-hand side of the periodic table.

3. Types of Salts

  1. Binary salts
  2. Metal oxides
  3. Metal peroxides
  4. Metal hydroxides
  5. Metal oxysalts

4. If the material does not have a metal in its name or formula, proceed to the middle or right-hand column of the flowchart. These are organic compounds that are generally combustible. These compounds are called “non-salts” because they are composed of non-metals attached to non-metals covalently. A non-metal is any element that is positioned to the right of the bold stair-step line on the right-hand side of the periodic table, excluding the noble or inert gases.

5. Types of Non-salts

  1. Hydrocarbons located in center column
    1. All hydrocarbons are combustible!
    2. Three types of straight chain hydrocarbons that also include isomers of the same straight chains. These hydrocarbons are called “aliphatics” because they are oily.
    3. A fourth type of hydrocarbon is the resonant bonded family or aromatics.
  2. Hydrocarbon Derivatives
    1. These compounds have many different hazards!
    2. Composed of hydrocarbon radicals with other groups of atoms attached that provide the compound with varying qualities.
    3. Ten types of hydrocarbon derivatives with special nomenclature.
  3. Nomenclature for acids is on the lower left for inorganic acids and the lower right for organic acids.
  4. Under each generic classification of a compound is its general formula, its general hazards, and an example. Limited space prevents examples of the hydrocarbon derivatives to be listed. This flowchart encompasses approximately 98 percent of what responders will encounter. For more information pertaining to a chemical compound’s hazards, consult technical information resources and references.
  5. Remember the hazards of the pure elements (e.g., hydrogen is a very flammable gas, chlorine is a toxic gas, mercury is a toxic liquid, etc.).

Field Application

Once the product(s) released have been identified and generically classified using the flowchart, communicate the appropriate information to all responders. Additionally, at this point, there is enough information to initiate a tentative tactical plan to address the release, but additional information should be sought through other resources. This is where your technical support comes in.

In the field, responders have successfully used this process because the quick product categorization assists in identifying the associated hazards, better enabling a quick size-up and tactical plan development. Adequate training in this process and flowchart use also minimizes scene downtime while additional product information is sought. This process allows responders to enter the release area appropriately dressed and equipped with minimal delay.

Instead of sending responders to hours and hours of chemistry courses that include information that will probably never be used in the field, a new approach to haz-mat chemistry is warranted. A short chemistry course that thoroughly explains the need-to-know information and how to use a haz-mat classification flowchart in the field is more time- and cost-efficient. It also promotes responder safety by teaching responders how to think at haz-mat emergencies. While using this system, after the product(s) released have been identified and categorized by using the haz-mat flowchart, tactics for mitigating the emergency can be developed and initially employed while more product information can be obtained by “calling tech support.”


  1. Meyer, Eugene. Chemistry of Hazardous Materials (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977).
  2. Borak, Jon, M.D.; William Abbott; Michael Callan. Hazardous Materials Exposure (Brady, 1992).
  3. Fire, Frank L. The Common Sense Approach to Hazardous Materials (Fire Engineering, 1986).
  4. Carlin, George. Brain Droppings (Hyperion, 1997).

DAVID F. PETERSON, CHMM, a 21-year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutenant with the Madison (WI) Fire Department. Previously, he was a training coordinator for the Regional Level A Haz Mat Response Team. He is the owner of Americhem Safety & Environmental, LLC, a haz-mat training and consulting firm in Janesville, Wisconsin. He is also an IAFF Master Trainer, an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy and the Emergency Management Institute, and an FDIC presenter. He is the founder and past president of the Wisconsin Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, Inc.

Chemical Terminology for the Haz-Mat First Responder

Operations-Level Terms
Boiling point
Flammable limits
Flash point
Ignition temperature
Radiation (alpha, beta, gamma)
Specific gravity
Vapor density
Vapor pressure
Water solubility

Technician-Level Terms
Air reactivity
Catalysts and inhibitors
Critical temperature and pressure
Oxidation ability
Self-accelerating decomposition temperature (SADT)
Surface tension
Water reactivity

Specialist-Level Terms
Compound, mixture
Halogenated hydrocarbon
Ionic bond, covalent bond
Salt, nonsalt
Saturated, unsaturated, aromatic hydrocarbons
Solution, slurry
Water miscible, immiscible

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