HAZ MAT RESPONSE:HOW PREPARED ARE YOU FOR TODAY’S EMERGENCIES?

BY DAVID F. PETERSON

Over the years, hazardous materials releases have proven to be continuous challenges to responders in terms of planning, training, and safety. Despite preventive legislation and performance-based regulations and standards, statistics indicate that hazardous materials (haz mat) releases are increasing and responders continue to be injured and killed at these emergencies. Why is this paradox occurring?

Most of you are aware of the federal regulations that mandated hazardous materials response training based on an employee’s job description. These Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations are more than 10 years old now. Although many fire departments have addressed the training requirements within these regulations, not all have totally complied with the letter of the law. Furthermore, many fire departments conducted haz mat training in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but few have maintained ongoing training programs. When was the last time you had current haz mat training through your fire department? If your answer is more than a year to several years ago, you may not be a “competent” responder, and you may be a liability to your fire department.

The law states that responder competencies have to be maintained, either through periodic testing or annual classes. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that properly trained personnel respond to these emergencies. In the dynamic world of haz mat regulations, a haz mat responder who has not been updated periodically would be lost on the next haz mat emergency. Witness the numerous changes and addenda to Department of Transportation (DOT) haz mat regulations pertaining to such areas as placarding, shipping papers, packaging, and even the many improvements in the North American Emergency Response Guidebook (NAERG).

TRAINING INADEQUATE

Perhaps the reason responders continue to be injured and killed on haz mat emergencies is that the required training is simply not being conducted consistently across the country. A review of haz mat incidents over the past five to 10 years illustrates this reality. Many responder deaths and in-juries have occurred at gasoline and pro-pane fires and tank explosions. There also have been numerous inhalation injuries. Although it can be argued that these types of incidents have always occurred, with and without responders as victims, and that the percentage of haz mat incidents on the whole is fairly low, the whole point of the federal haz mat regulations is to prevent responders from becoming victims in the first place.

Still another reason for haz mat responder deaths and injuries may be poor or inadequate training. This seems implausible when you consider the many quality programs offered by local technical colleges, private vendors, and even trade unions such as the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which offers, without cost, high-quality training programs given by knowledgeable, experienced trainers. Yet, a large number of these training opportunities, including state and federal grants, go unused.

Fire department internal haz mat training programs also need to be concerned about quality; the regulations provide the needed guidance. Selected instructors have to meet specific criteria before they can effectively train others. Fire departments need to select haz mat instructors who can ensure program effectiveness. Attending one haz mat response course does not make an instructor.

Another reason responders may not respond safely to haz mat incidents is that “haz mat” is simply not the buzzword it was in the 1970s and 1980s. It is no longer in the consciousness of most responders. Years ago, the learning curve for responders was quite high, but many responders have “caught up” by attending seminars or participating in in-house training. Over the years, haz mat has become pass√© and “old hat,” instilling in many responders sort of a “been there, done that” mentality.

Today, new and equally important topics such as confined space rescue, technical rescue, and terrorism response have displaced haz mat response as the “in” or “vogue” topic. Consequently, haz mat has been deemphasized and put on the back burner. For many departments, it is not even a consideration when it comes to prioritizing for the training calendar. From experience, we know that out of sight means out of mind.

A good reason haz mats should be taught, at least on an annual basis, is that the IAFF says firefighters are six times more likely to become injured at haz mat incidents than structure fires. Even though the number of haz mat responses is low compared with the number of structure fire responses, the risk of injury is higher. This alarming statistic might be the result of ignorance, tunnel vision, bad luck, or merely the failure to recognize an emergency as a haz mat incident before rushing into the scene. All of these causal factors could be better handled through effective training and more emphasis on haz mat issues.

PERSONNEL TURNOVER A FACTOR

One last reason for responders’ becoming victims at haz mat incidents is that they simply do not know better. Since the birth of haz mat response a few decades ago, we are now into the second or third generation of responders. Through retirements and promotions, a great deal of knowledge and experience has been lost in haz mat response as well as in firefighting. This turnover is especially significant because it may mean that the old lessons have to be relearned. Learning how to respond to haz mat incidents at the time of the emergency is not the most effective training tool. In fact, it can be downright deadly. Again, in recent haz mat incidents in which firefighters have been killed, ignorance may have been a large factor in their deaths.

The experience factor may even be more pronounced in volunteer fire departments, where the turnover rate can be quite high. Some fire service notables estimate the average career for a volunteer firefighter may be as short as seven years; others estimate that three to five years may be more the norm. Since haz mat events do not happen very often and are coupled with a short career length, firefighters simply cannot accrue enough experience to respond safely to these emergencies.

PREVENTING DEATHS AND INJURIES

We need to bring haz mat response and associated issues back to the front burner and stress the importance of this training to all responders. Since other topics also demand our attention, we may need a bigger stove or at least a more equitable distribution of training resources. By giving haz mat response the priority it deserves, we can prevent many injuries and deaths. What is needed, then, is for every fire department in the country to commit to ongoing and long-range quality haz mat training.

DAVID F. PETERSON, a 20-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 a master trainer, an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy and the Emergency Management Institute, and a frequent lecturer and author. He is the founder and past president of the Wisconsin Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, Inc.

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