A Risk-Based Approach to Hazmat/WMD Emergency Response


This article introduces a risk-based emergency response plan for hazmat/weapons of mass destruction (WMD) incidents that integrates facts, science, and circumstances to guide the operations-level responder in taking appropriate action at predetermined decision points. This decision-based approach differs from the traditional tactical-based approach in which responders take specific actions at specific points of the incident based on an assumption that incidents are similar enough to warrant a list of responses. Rather, each incident is dynamic and a function of all the on-scene indicators (product, container, environment), requiring the respondent to be able to adapt during the ongoing and often unpredictable event.


In recent years, emergency responders have had to adapt quickly to the ever-increasing threat of terrorists using WMDs that has significantly impacted the conventional beliefs of emergency response. As well, the development of various tactical and operational procedures to meet the anticipated demands created by a terrorist event has blurred the established division between offensive and defensive response operations. The continually expanding mission for emergency response agencies, in addition to the new threats responders face because of terrorist events, drives a need for a review of operating guidelines to respond safely and effectively.

When combining the complexities of incidents with the pressure on responders to act in certain ways based on their culture, training, and experience, we conclude that an approach with clear decision points and related circumstances is more efficient and effective than an approach based on predetermined models or the traditional tactical-based approach in which responders take specific actions at specific points of the incident based on an assumption that incidents are similar enough to warrant a list of responses.


In the effort to develop a comprehensive response, national guidelines have recently emphasized the importance of planning for specific types of incidents as though the recognition of their uniqueness is the best approach to emergency response (National Preparedness Scenarios). The National Response Framework states that “scenarios serve as the foundation for the development of homeland security tasks, target capabilities, and standards and performance metrics against which capabilities and tasks will ultimately be measured.”1

It is suggested that there be plans for each scenario and that each plan answer the following questions:

  • How prepared do we need to be?
  • How prepared are we?
  • How do we prioritize efforts to close the difference?

The particular scenarios were chosen because they represent incidents that may have high consequences for both local and national geographies.

This listing suggests that an agency should prepare to respond differently to incidents involving blister agents, toxic industrial chemicals, nerve agents, and chlorine tank explosions. The problem with this approach is that the emergency responder community is being overwhelmed with information and procedures for response to specific types of WMD events. No two events are the same, and yet similarities may be more common across types than between them. By separating different but related categories (like four types of chemical attacks, for instance), the responder is subject to confusion and possibly conflicting information. This suggests that a plan that tries to cover every imaginable detail may frustrate the emergency responder. The goal is to convey an easily understood emergency response plan (ERP) that allows for the greatest flexibility.2

The concern with too many scenarios can be answered by reducing the categories to manageable and similar or related scenarios. The answer to the second concern with too much detail is to move to a flexible decision-based process. These solutions are symbiotic, since a flexible decision process is better able to account for differences among incidents within a general category. For the first concern, we propose the creation of a manageable list that consolidates 15 scenarios into six. Table 1 compares the National Preparedness Scenarios (top column) with a simplified list of alternative categories (bottom column).

The six categories include all of the original 15 scenarios but place them into similar categories that involve similar responses. A nerve agent attack, for instance, is similar to a chlorine release as long as the emergency response plan follows a decision-based approach and not a strict list of predetermined steps. This approach identifies decision points using risk-based analysis.


The planning scenarios may be beyond a local jurisdiction’s ability to prevent; although, through proper planning, a local jurisdiction can improve its ability to recover from a significant event. In the case of a WMD event, terrorists may be deterred because of a jurisdiction’s countermeasures. The real challenge is development of an ERP that creates “Decision Points” instead of just tactics and procedures. NFPA 472, Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents, emphasizes the importance of empowering the responder with knowledge, skills, and abilities that allow for greater nuance and specific responses. Responders can react to the dynamic nature of incidents rather than to a static picture. Planning is not a scripted process that tries to dictate tactics; rather, it should provide a starting point for operations, adjusted as the situation changes and as facts are gathered.

This is not to deny the value of planning. Rather, plans should be developed and tested. But they will never be perfect in the sense that events are never exactly the same. One is reminded of General Patton’s concern: “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.” The ERP shall be revised when deficiencies are identified or when significant changes in emergency response guidelines have occurred such as new and updated requirements and guidance, technologies, and other information or equipment that might have a significant impact on the management and outcome of the event.

But how does the emergency responder identify decision points? We recommend a risk-based response as the best approach. A risk-based response is a systematic process by which emergency responders begin by (1) analyzing an event, using on-scene indicators to identify any potential types of harm (e.g., thermal, radiological, or explosive); and (2) evaluating the potential consequences. These are the first steps in actions based on the facts, science, and circumstances of a given event.3 As an event unfolds, a risk-based approach reevaluates continuously and decision points are informed.


To illustrate what we mean, we will outline the possible response to a radiological incident. To assist emergency responders with their scene size-up and decision-making strategy during the initial stages of a radiological response, an operational flowchart has been developed (Figure 1) which is based on a national standard.4 This flowchart provides an analytical breakdown that uses the NFPA APIE Process (analyze, plan, implement, evaluate) for a radiological response by following an “if this, then that” decision-making strategy, helping the decision maker to pick the best option.

Figure 1. Operational Tactical Worksheet

By Armando Bevelacqua; used with permission of Red Hat Publishing Company Inc.

The Operational Tactical Worksheet provides a checklist to guide an emergency responder in determining what type of radiological response the event is (emergency or incident). This analytical process is also known as a Rational Choice Model. This strategy is an effective decision-making tool during situations where conditions are dynamic and time sensitive and the best course of action is not predetermined.

Although the rational choice model is an effective decision-making strategy, an intuitive perception, “thinking with your gut” regarding complex situations such as radiological response, should not be dismissed. Emergency responders often rely on their “sixth sense” when conditions are dynamic and unclear, drawing from past experience of similar incidents, looking for cues or patterns in scene size-up. Gary Klein argues the advantages of a “recognitional decision model” (vs. an analytical one), which allows experienced decision makers to substitute mental simulation for abstract data when time pressure is greatest and conditions are ambiguous. In what he calls a “Recognition-Primed Decision Model,” he describes how decision makers use their experience to avoid the time and resources necessary for painstaking deliberations.5

The discovery of a bomb in a car in Times Square was such an incident. The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) officers realized through small cues that it was more than a routine car fire. “The clues came swiftly. Whereas a typical car fire involves dark, billowing smoke, the smoke wafting around inside the Pathfinder was light, white, and slow-moving. One firefighter on the scene reported seeing sparks and hearing what sounded like fire crackers going off inside the car. Other clues included the Connecticut license plates, blinking hazard lights, and a skewed parking job.”6

In situations defined by these characteristics (i.e., relatively limited in scope), the decision maker does not necessarily select the best option but rather the first option that solves the immediate problem. However, intuition can go only so far. The initial decision to hold back a fire line was followed by a careful analysis of the situation. Thus, analytical decision making followed intuitive decision making. The ability to use both in a rare event is the challenge to training. This may be the unique advantage of scenario-based training and feedback from subject matter experts. Indeed, both officers in the Times Square incident credited this kind of training (from the FDNY and International Association of Fire Fighters) with their ability to respond appropriately.

In addition to the checklist, Figure 2 shows a decision matrix with identified decision points for a radiological emergency (accidental or intentional). At each decision point, the responder at the operations level determines the appropriate course of action based on the facts, science, and specific circumstances. Examples include life safety operations (LSO), exposure rates, and dose.

Figure 2. Incident Notification

The decision matrix begins with the recognition of the specific type of radiological event and ends when emergency operations terminate or command is transferred to a specialized local, state, or federal response team. On arrival, the responder is required to establish the incident command system and give an initial scene report. There are several on-scene indicators that will aid the emergency responder in identifying the type of event (Table 2).

If possible, the responder determines if the cause of the incident is accidental or intentional. If the event has the potential to be intentional, the responder must make immediate notifications and consider secondary threats, crime scene/evidence preservation, and notification of law enforcement of a potential WMD event.

Next, the emergency responder needs to determine the necessity for LSO. LSO shall be based on a risk analysis that includes the viability of any victims, the feasibility to complete a rescue operation, and an evaluation of all hazards (TRACEM) on scene. If the emergency responder deems that LSO is appropriate after performing a risk analysis, the responder wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment “may be able to perform an expedient, that is quick ’in-and-out,’ operation.”7 The emergency responder needs to determine the success of the actions taken and the status of response objectives until termination of the emergency or until transfer of command. The APIE flowchart and checklist present a useful scorecard that keeps the responder on track to make efficient and thorough decisions, especially when there is a chance of being overwhelmed at a significant event.

The key issue here is that the decision-based approach differs from a tactical-based approach, which directs the responder to take specific actions at specific points of the incident based on an assumption that incidents are similar enough to warrant a list of responses. Rather, as previously stated, each incident is a function of “product, container, environment,” where an incident is dynamic, requiring the respondent to be able to adapt during the ongoing and often unpredictable event.


Given the rarity of real-world experiences with complex high-impact, low-probability events from which an emergency responder can draw, training is the solution to the lack of real-world experience. Training for an emergency response to a WMD incident may be best served by applying a combination of the two strategies of situational awareness (“intuition”) and clear decision points.

One suggested approach is the use of gaming simulations in virtual environments, such as Hazmat Hotzone, developed by Carnegie-Mellon University for hazmat responses. (See sidebar “Hazmat Hotzone Simulation.”) Figures 3 and 4 depict, respectively, a screenshot of some of the choices for a first responder on encountering a victim and one of several scenario generators, in this case listing victim symptoms.8 Emmanuel Clavaud of the French Fire and Rescue Service has outlined the usefulness of virtual reality in training and crisis management. As he notes, those participating in such “serious games” can gain total interactivity in a realistic representation of reality obviously removed from actual risk.9 It is also much less costly and complex than drills conducted in the field and easier to involve more participants.

Figure 3. Screen View of Subway
A view of the Hazmat Hotzone screen as seen through the firefighter’s mask on entering a hazmat scene in a subway.
Figure 4. Screen of Signs/Symptoms
This screen from the Hazmat Hotzone depicts victims’ signs and symptoms in a hypothetical subway hazmat scenario.

The continually expanding mission for emergency responders, including new threats caused by terrorist events, drives a need for examining existing and proposed concepts of operations. Ironically, a plan that tries to cover every imaginable detail will only overwhelm the emergency responder and likely lead to chaos.

The real challenge will be in the development of an ERP that creates key decision points instead of just long lists of tactics and procedures, whereby emergency responders can use a risked-based approach to determine the appropriate response options in a flexible and straightforward manner. The value of decision points is that they are a systemic approach to all phases of an emergency. The measure of ERP effectiveness will be demonstrated when it is used to respond successfully to unanticipated events.


1. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, National Response Framework, January 2008, Washington, DC, p. 75.

2. NFPA 472, 2008 Edition, Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents, “Emergency Response Plan. A plan developed by the authority having jurisdiction, with the cooperation of all participating agencies and organizations, that details specific actions to be performed by all personnel who are expected to respond during an emergency.” Section

3. Ibid., “Risk-Based Response Process. Systematic process by which responders analyze a problem involving hazardous materials/weapons of mass destruction (WMD), assess the hazards, evaluate the potential consequences, and determine appropriate response actions based upon facts, science, and the circumstances of the incident.” Section 3.3.54.

4. ASTM International, ASTM 2601 – 08, Standard Practice for Radiological Emergency Response, West Conshohocken, Pa., 2008, 37.

5. Klein, Gary, “A Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Model of Rapid Decision Making” in Klein, Gary A., Orasanu, J., Calderwood, R., and Zsambok, C. (Eds), Decision Making in Action: Models and Methods, (pp. 138-147). Westport, CT, US: Ablex Publishing, 1993, p. 147.

6. see: http://www.iaff.org/10News/060210TimesSquare.htm.

7. U.S. DOT, et. al., Emergency Response Guidebook, 2008 edition, p. 348.

8. see: http://www.etc.cmu.edu/projects/hazmat_2005/about.php.

9. Clavaud, E., “The Next Step After Japan? (Virtual reality, training, and crisis management),” Transatlantic Security Paper No. 2, Foundation Pour La Recherche Strategique, John Hopkins University, June 2011, 12 pp. Emmanuel Clavaud is director of the SDIS-04 (Fire and Rescue District Service) and Associate Fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique.

Hazmat Hotzone Simulation

The concept of using simulation in training has a history going back to the 19th century and, more recently, Clark Abt’s book, Serious Gaming, in 1970. There is an international association (ISAGA, or International Simulation and Gaming Association); a journal (Simulation & Gaming); and a master’s degree in serious game design offered at Michigan State University. The Hazmat Hotzone illustrated here was developed by former students at the Carnegie-Mellon University Center for Entertainment Technology with our involvement. It has been used by fire departments throughout the United States. The Fire Department of New York has used it to conduct training on many types of events including responses to multiple-alarm fires and hazardous materials incidents, as illustrated in the accompanying figures.

TONY MUSSORFITI retired as a lieutenant from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), where he served from 1988 to 2010. Prior to his retirement, he was assigned to the FDNY Center for Terrorism and Domestic Preparedness, where he was involved with the development of response protocols for terrorist incidents. He has represented the FDNY as a member of the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Justice Inter-Agency Board (IAB) Training & Exercise Sub-Group. He also represented the FDNY and the City of New York on the National Fire Protection Association 472, Standards for Response to Hazardous Material and Weapons of Mass Destruction, and ASTM E 54, Department of Homeland Security’s Standard Practice for Response to Radiological Emergencies committees. He has also been involved with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hazardous Materials Training and International Counter Proliferation Program in the former Soviet Union since its inception.

DR. JOHN E. SELEY is professor of geography, planning, public policy, and environmental psychology at the Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York and Queens College. For more than 20 years, he was a senior research associate and visiting professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is also a member of the affiliate faculty of the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a hazmat technician II. He was appointed honorary deputy chief of the FDNY for his work with that agency over the past 30 years. He was a member of the Committee on Nuclear Waste Disposal of the National Academy of Sciences.

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