Hazmat Survival Tips: Surviving Hazmat Incidents in Tough Economic Times

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 34

by Steven De Lisi

If your department is like most others today, you’ve probably received word by now that your current-year budget will be reduced and next year’s figures don’t look any better. Items likely to be impacted include equipment purchases and training.

Reducing or eliminating equipment purchases is troublesome. Hazardous materials response items too often have a limited shelf life; after a certain date determined by the manufacturer, the equipment may be unusable. Items such as atmospheric monitors and breathing apparatus also have recommended maintenance intervals and necessary repairs to ensure that this equipment is ready at all times.

Training program reductions or eliminations are accidents waiting to happen. In addition to an increased potential for personal injury resulting from a lack of training, departments that withhold training from their members run the risk of civil or perhaps even criminal liability for doing so.

Budget constraints have long been a bane of the fire service, yet today’s circumstances will challenge even the most experienced members who likely cannot recall economic conditions as severe today’s. However, there are options.

The most drastic include eliminating or reducing service delivery, including hazmat response team services. Of course, these actions are never popular, since they affect not only employee morale but the expectations of citizens who have come to rely on a certain level of service for their tax dollars.

Alternatives to reducing or eliminating hazmat team operations include a mutual aid response with nearby state or local departments that provide similar services. Potentially, such arrangements could allow each department to reduce its equipment and staffing levels and thereby reduce costs. However, the success of such a venture depends in part on the leadership personalities involved and each organization’s willingness to relinquish some control over its individual operations. An organization’s ability to develop collaborative relationships with other agencies without respect to egos or the “what’s in it for me?” approach is essential to successfully developing mutual aid agreements.

Another option is for a hazmat team to charge for its response. Although many departments probably consider this akin to charging for responding to a house fire, organizations that currently charge for EMS response probably would never imagined doing so years ago. Of course, their EMS operation would likely be out of business if it were not for revenue recovery. The same can be done for hazmat response by charging for the actual cost of replacing expendable items (e.g., absorbents and limited-use PPE), and also charging a per use for equipment ranging from atmospheric monitors to apparatus. In developing a per-use fee schedule, consider the estimated annual costs of maintaining these items along with that of vehicle fuel consumption. Remember, many costs associated with a hazmat response involving a commercial business will likely covered by that business’s insurance. This minimizes the possibility that revenue recovery will bankrupt a company.

Local ordinances or state laws may govern decisions related to establishing revenue recovery for hazmat response, so be sure to check with your department’s legal advisors before you begin. In some instances, there may already be a state law that allows for revenue recovery, so adopting a local ordinance may be unnecessary.

There are numerous ways that departments can reduce equipment, supplies, and training costs. Purchasing supplies such as absorbents and personal protective equipment in larger quantities can sometimes reduce costs. Although limited individual agency budgets may prevent spending larger sums to yield a discount, purchases made in coordination with other departments can increase the quantity ordered, thereby reducing the cost per item. When doing so, the departments involved in the group purchase need to agree on specifications, whether it’s their preference on absorbents or the brand and style of personal protective equipment desired. Additionally, there may be laws that govern group purchases made by different government agencies. Since one department will likely pay for the entire purchase, some system needs to be developed for the other agencies to reimburse the purchasing department.

To replace absorbent used during an incident, one option includes requiring the cleanup contractor (assuming that the responsible party has hired one) to restock your inventory with comparable absorbent. If this is done immediately following the incident, you will then be ready for the next call with no money out of pocket. The contactor simply adds the replacement absorbent’s cost to its total cleanup charges to the responsible party.

For those departments using atmospheric monitors, the high cost of calibration gas is always a concern. Generally, the recommended calibration interval is no more than 30 days, whereas a functional or bump test (in which the device is exposed to the calibration gas to confirm readings and alarm activation) is best performed before each use. Eliminating bump tests or extending calibration intervals could be an invitation for disaster, not to mention also exposing the department to liability if the device fails to function properly. Consider contacting the manufacturer of the atmospheric monitor to confirm its recommended calibration intervals.

When purchasing calibration gas, remember there are often various quantities available, usually measured in cubic feet or liters, and departments should first compare the difference in price and then review their history regarding past consumption rates of the gas. This will allow you to determine a “per use” cost and then decide on the most cost-effective quantity to purchase. As was stated earlier, a joint purchase of calibration gas may be an effective way to obtain larger cylinders at a lower cost.

Another option is for one department to purchase the gas and allow nearby departments with similar devices to bring their units to that department for calibration. Of course, if one department calibrates atmospheric monitors for other agencies, the liability for the device’s future performance could be their responsibility. Once again, check with your department’s legal representatives before initiating this type of arrangement.

Be mindful that regardless of what size cylinder is purchased, there is almost always an expiration date. Some departments have learned this hard way. On receiving a cylinder, they discover that the stated expiration date is no more than six months away. Therefore, when purchasing calibration gas, inform the sales representative that you want the longest expiration time frame possible, but not less than 12 months.

Hazardous materials teams that use colorimetric tubes are well aware of how often various tubes expire. These tubes are often sold in lots of 10 each, and one option that has been used with some success is for hazmat teams operating near each other to purchase these items jointly. When doing so, each team buys different tubes and then “shares” half of the quantity purchased with other departments. The premise for this purchasing arrangement is that, during most incidents, it is rare to use more than a few of any one type of tube, but if more are needed, the departments that participated in the tube purchase can quickly deliver them to the scene.

When sharing colorimetric tubes, take care to ensure that whatever means is used to maintain shared tubes outside of their normal storage box, that they are protected them from damage and that the expiration date is clearly displayed. Furthermore, any printed instructions included with the original box must be copied and included with those items that are shared. The net result of this arrangement is an immediate 50-percent reduction in the annual cost to maintain an inventory of colorimetric tubes.

Remember that using anything with a shelf life on the day, week, or perhaps even a month following the stated expiration date will not likely yield different results then had it been used before that date. Nonetheless, your department could face serious liability if the equipment fails to perform as intended, and, although this failure may have absolutely nothing to do with the product’s shelf life, the manufacturer will no doubt place the burden for the failure on your department. As if that’s not enough, lawyers for the plaintiff will claim that you knowingly violated an accepted standard with reckless disregard for safety. When this happens, your department may need to write a settlement check with lots of zeros.
Regardless how any equipment is purchased, always ensure that your department’s personnel know how to use it properly and that it is stored according to manufacturer recommendations, otherwise, you will only accrue expensive repair bills. Also, remember that if you lack the funds for repairs, the alternative is all too often to place an item out of service. Although this is in itself a harsh option, it is even harsher knowing that it was likely preventable.

Steps to reduce costs associated with training include those similar to reducing equipment costs, specifically joint arrangements with neighboring departments. Usually the greatest cost of training is instructor salaries; for hazmat teams operating in a region, sharing instructors is a good way to reduce this expense. For example, a department may decide to conduct a training evolution that requires a minimum of four instructors, including some whose sole purpose may be to serve as safety officers. Costs for these instructors could involve overtime, especially if staffing on a particular shift is insufficient. Yet, if two nearby teams combine their training efforts, each will then need to provide only two instructors to achieve the desired minimum of staffing of four.

For those departments that send equipment out for repair and, specifically in the case of atmospheric monitors, calibration, receiving factory-sponsored training may allow department personnel to conduct these tasks in-house. Although the initial financial outlay for this type of training can be expensive since it includes not only instructor salaries but also instructor travel costs, the long-term impact in reducing repair and maintenance costs can be substantial.

An additional benefit is that downtime for equipment sent back to a manufacturer is often measured in weeks, whereas the time required for in-house service can measured in days, if not hours.

Furthermore, although most anyone can read the manufacturer’s literature that accompanies atmospheric monitors and then attempt to conduct certain repairs or maintenance, personnel possessing a manufacturer’s certificate documenting their ability to do so safely and in accordance with established manufacturer guidelines are better able to defend their credibility if the device’s performance of the device is ever questioned.

As with joint training discussed earlier, departments that use similar equipment can share in the expense of this training. Another option is to check with the manufacturer to determine if their representative is already scheduled to be in your area on other business. If so, you may be able to minimize the cost of travel to only that required to reach your destination from a nearby location.

By far, the best option for receiving training on maintenance and repair for any piece of equipment along with its proper use is to require the manufacturer to provide this training as a condition of the sale when preparing purchase specifications. If you are concerned about paying overtime for those assigned to shift work to attend this training while off duty, be sure to specify the minimum number of sessions that must be provided on alternating days to train personnel during their normal work cycle.

Another unfortunate aspect of budgetary constraints is a reduction in staffing and hours of service for other government agencies on which your department may normally depend on during hazardous material emergencies. Affected agencies could include those related to environmental quality, occupational safety and health, and the highway department. In some instances office locations may be consolidated or closed altogether. The net impact could eliminate a particular service or at the very least extend the response times for these agencies to your call for assistance.

The same holds true for private contractors, including those previously called on to provide heavy equipment such as dump trucks or cranes. With a current lull in construction activities, these businesses may no longer exist or they may have sold off the various assets that you came to depend on.

Now is probably a good time to review your emergency response plan and contact agencies and businesses you rely on to determine their current status. Remember to check back periodically as well, and especially after the start of the next fiscal year.

Despite these troubled economic times, a concern for finances must never trump safety. Furthermore, the ability to maintain consistent service delivery in a manner that is within each department’s economic means is an on-going challenge that is best served through the collective ingenuity of its members. Always remember that although the costs associated with operating a hazardous materials team are steep, those related to operating one in an unsafe manner are immeasurable. These costs must always be measured more in terms of a commitment to the safety and wellbeing of personnel rather than just in dollars.

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 and as an adjunct instructor for VDFP. He continues to conduct hazardous materials awareness and operations-level training programs for fire suppression and EMS personnel. 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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