Hazardous Materials “Sand Traps”


Many of us enjoy a relaxing or frustrating game of golf on our days off. The difference between the two is determined by how well we avoid the sand traps. Sand traps cause frustration, slow down your game, and can ruin the experience altogether. They are not always easy to see until you are in them and are often hard to get out of. The key to avoiding sand traps is to recognize them and avoid them before they become a problem. Unfortunately, we do not get a mulligan when it comes to hazardous materials responses. We must recognize and avoid things that can slow or ruin our “game” before they occur.


Any good golfer knows the shots approaching the green are just as important as the ones on the green. The same is true in hazardous materials responses. If your commanding officer were to ask, “How do you respond to a hazmat scene?” everyone would know the correct answer: uphill and upwind. Honestly, how many times do we take these factors into consideration? Do we alter our response routes because of the wind or terrain conditions? The safest route may not be the quickest route.

  • Upwind. As you are responding, assess the wind speed and direction by looking at the flag or asking dispatch. Remember, wind speed and direction have been known to change during an incident. Establish a policy for routine wind monitoring or receiving updates from dispatch.
  • Uphill. This may be a poor term to use. We should begin teaching a better term, upslope. The slightest grade can cause that material to move toward you. Look for slopes, not hills.
  • Is the leak static or dynamic? How far could the product have moved since the initial report? Once you arrive, you might stage your apparatus in an initial position that is too close to the scene and may have to relocate. This costs time and puts the responders in danger.
  • Often, the failure occurs before dispatch. The dispatch center fails to recognize that this may be a potential hazardous materials incident and the correct units are not even deployed.


From range finders to portable wind gauges, today’s golfer has many tools to help plan the tactics for achieving the best possible outcome. The golfer must be able to use these tools appropriately and know how to interpret the data they provide. Teams may be outfitted with a vast array of monitoring equipment. It is important that you know the capabilities and the limitations of each type of monitoring equipment. You cannot simply strap all the monitors around your waist and wait for an alarm to go off.

  • The monitoring equipment must be maintained properly and be ready for use. The batteries must be charged. The monitor must be calibrated on a routine basis and properly charged to perform optimally. All team members must be able to replace bulbs, perform bump tests, and understand how to apply correction factors.
  • Use a systematic and methodical approach when monitoring. If you hold the monitor only at waist level, you may miss gases that rise or are hugging the ground. If you walk too fast, your monitor may be showing you the reading obtained at the door. Use a slow, methodical approach to ensure accurate readings.
  • Team members must be able to interpret the readings they are given. If a photoionization detector is used and the ionization potential of the material is greater than the capabilities of the bulb, then a hazard may still be present even if a monitor is reading zero. If a team uses a four-gas monitor and sees a drop of one percent in the O2 level, they should know that there may be 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of a displacement gas in the air.


Communication between the caddy and the golfer is very important at a professional level. The communication among team members on a scene is also very important. One of the downfalls of using level A suits is the decreased ability to communicate with your partner and back to command.

  • A simple and effective way to communicate is through the use of hand signals, which each member of the entry teams and their team leaders should review during the safety briefing. You can use dry erase markers to write on white boards, the visors of the suit, or the floor. You can tape these markers to the arm of the suit prior to entry for easy access. This can allow for communication in environments where noise may hinder verbal signals.
  • Radio communication is the best way to communicate back to command. The ideal situation is to have hands-free communication devices. If your department uses handheld radios, each team member should to be trained in how to reach their radios and communicate clearly back to the cold zone. If your standard operating procedure states the radios are to be worn on the inside of the suit, this can be a difficult maneuver and will require practice.


    It is essential to my golf game that I have a bag full of balls ready to take the place of those that decide to go swimming. Having backup teams that are ready to provide assistance or rescue is essential to our hazardous materials responses. Over the past several years in the fire service, we have all become familiar with the rapid intervention team (RIT) concept. We normally have a backup team in place during a hazmat incident, but is it ready to perform a rescue of our primary entry team? A RIT on a fire scene would never be sitting in a chair on the other side of the road with no tools and half dressed.

    • The backup team should be close to the warm zone. The members need to be dressed and ready go on air.
    • They must have all the monitoring equipment needed to enter the hot zone. They should also be equipped with items needed to perform a rescue of the down team members. This may include flexible rescue stretchers or stokes baskets, rope equipment, mechanical advantage systems, or basic hand tools.


    How do we learn to avoid these traps? Just like the best golfers in the world, we must emphasize training and repetition. In today’s fire service, we are required to be proficient in so many aspects of emergency response that training time on hazardous materials may become limited. Many firefighters may get the initial technician training and be familiar with the basics of hazardous materials response. However, this may not be enough when faced with equipment failure or something other than the run-of-the-mill incident. Every person in the department must be trained to a competent level of hazmat response.

    At the Rogers (AR) Fire Department, we have made an effort to train the majority of our response personnel to the technician level. We have had to place a greater emphasis on continued training with the personnel who may not handle hazardous materials incidents on a regular basis. We have instituted an annual training plan that provides our personnel approximately 7,500 hours a year of hazardous materials training through a combination of monthly training with our special operations team, quarterly shift training, scenarios, and written proficiency tests.

    We often turn our responders off to hazardous materials training because of long hours of sitting in a classroom listening to someone talk about aromatic hydrocarbons or how a wheatstone bridge works. Responders do not react well to this type of training. Consider training that can be done by the personnel at the station. Training packets that contain scenarios or information on a certain product can be done at the station. Have crews respond to a hazmat scenario, and let them handle the first 10 minutes of the incident. Ten minutes worth of training can give them the ability to begin to set up a hazardous materials scene safely and effectively. Practice communications among crews in level A suits when the in-suit communication fails, or practice hazmat RIT operations. You can conduct these drills with individual crews in a short time. We must make hazmat training a priority, interesting, and brief.

    Hazmat incidents, for most of our communities, do not occur frequently. However, they do have a great potential to harm our responders, our community, and our environment. We all must continually work toward providing our responders with a greater understanding of how to handle and respond to these incidents and avoid many of the many traps that will ruin our game.

    WILLIAM HELLARD has served for 12 years with the Rogers (AR) Fire Department. He is the hazardous materials coordinator for the Special Operations Team and has been a hazmat technician for 11 years. He is an Arkansas Department of Emergency Management hazmat instructor.

    William Hellard will present “Hazardous Materials ‘Sand Traps’ ” on Friday, April 26, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at FDIC 2013 in Indianapolis.

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