Haz-Mat Survival Tips: Training on Atmospheric Monitors

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 26

By Steven De Lisi

A recent Quick Vote that appeared on the Fire Engineering Web site asked readers if their department provided documented formal training on the use of atmospheric monitors. Almost two-thirds of respondents indicated that their department did not provide this type of training. Is this a problem?

First and foremost, the failure to properly train personnel in the use of atmospheric monitors represents a serious safety hazard. Firefighters may not only fail to detect dangerous conditions, they may also make decisions regarding isolation distances and evacuation of buildings based on potentially erroneous information. Also, failure to properly train firefighters on the use of any equipment assigned to them exposes the department to the threat of civil or criminal litigation.

Note especially that the Quick Vote question focused on documented formal training. After my more than 25 years in the fire service, I know that effective training can take place in an informal setting, for example, around the kitchen table or in the firehouse day room. Although this might suffice for some types of training, the lack of a formal lesson plan with precise learning objectives can result in overlooking critical safety aspects of the use of atmospheric monitors, thereby leading to the possibility of serious injury or death for firefighters and the public. The absence of a lesson plan with learning objectives also presents problems when training occurs on different work shifts, each with a different instructor, such as the officer on duty that day. Without a consistent approach, each individual instructor will likely tailor the class to that person’s interests and possibly exclude or embellish certain details. Not having a lesson plan can also make it difficult later on for a fire department to defend itself in a lawsuit that claims that personnel were improperly trained since individuals on each shift may have learned a slightly different version of how the equipment operates.

Learning objectives should focus not only on using the device, but also its care, maintenance, and proper storage. Training should also identify who is authorized to repair and calibrate the atmospheric monitor, and if field calibration equipment is available, how frequently to calibrate the device.

Although most fire departments are fully capable of reading the atmospheric monitor’s operating instructions and developing their own learning objectives, the best way to train is to have personnel attend a training session conducted by a “factory” representative, not a “sales” representative. This is a critical distinction, because although sales personnel may have good intentions and some familiarity with the device, their depth of knowledge on any one item they sell is all too often diluted by the sheer number of products they deal with on any given day. Compare this to the knowledge base of a representative from the product’s manufacturer. There is no doubt that the latter will possess a more intimate knowledge of the atmospheric monitor’s inner workings.

Training led by factory representatives will most likely consist of a formal program that includes a student manual, the atmospheric monitor’s operating manual, and a list of learning objectives. In addition, most companies will issue a certificate or other type of documentation that confirms personnel have successfully completed the training. Safeguard these documents for future reference; don’t just toss them into a file drawer. They may be needed if the qualifications of those who use the device are ever called into question.

If there is a large number of individuals who may need to use the atmospheric monitor, factory training may be available as a “train-the-trainer” session, which allows those in attendance to then train others in the department. As a result, no more than three or six members (one or two per shift) would need attend this session; they in turn can train the remaining department members.

Training costs could perhaps amount to several hundred dollars, especially if travel expenses are involved. However, one way to circumvent this situation is to involve other departments nearby that use the same atmospheric monitor, since the cost of this training usually does not increase based the number of students involved.

Another option is to schedule your training on a day when the factory representative will be in the area already. For example, when a representative was in town to deliver two different training programs nearby, the departments involved agreed to split the cost of the factory representative’s travel expenses.

Alternatively, fire departments could make the purchase of atmospheric monitors contingent on the manufacturer providing a train-the-trainer session at no cost. Verify whether the “no-cost” aspect includes travel expenses and that a factory representative (not a sales representative) will provide the training and a certificate of completion for attendees.

When department members trained by the factory representative begin training other department personnel, it is important they not only present the manufacturer’s learning objectives, but also those of the fire department related to the device’s desired use. These objectives could include who can perform various maintenance functions, inspection and maintenance frequency, and the various forms used to document use and maintenance.

Remember, no training is complete without documentation. Documentation should include not only a copy of the learning objectives and student materials, but also the date of training along with the signature of every person in attendance. Departments may wish to consider a written exam at completion of training; this should include at least one question based on each learning objective. Furthermore, atmospheric monitor training should also include some hands-on training, which should include documentation stating that each student demonstrated his use of the device in a satisfactory manner.

Congratulations to those departments whose members already receive the proper training on the use of atmospheric monitors. To those departments still lacking this training, hopefully this Survival Tip has provided workable solutions to help alleviate the situation.

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; he continues to coordinate a statewide training program for the investigation of environmental crimes as an adjunct instructor for VDFP. 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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