Hazmat Survival Tips: Designing an Effective Hazardous Materials Exercise

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 27

By Steven De Lisi

Most firefighters today receive training that meets the objectives of the First Responder Operational level, as the defined in National Fire Protection Association 472, Standard for Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents. Among the many tasks assigned to personnel at this training level are establishing scene control, initiating an incident management system, and performing defensive control functions and emergency decontamination procedures. Training involves both classroom and hands-on skills to ensure that students are fully capable of performing these and many more vital tasks necessary to ensure that the initial stages of a hazardous materials incident are handled safely and effectively.

Remember that although a hazardous materials team may ultimately be called to the scene of a major incident to perform offensive leak control procedures to stop a release, firefighters will often be on the scene long before the arrival of any additional resources. Those arriving with first-in firefighters most often include EMS personnel, who may or may not be from the same agency as firefighters, along with local and state law enforcement officers. In addition to the hazmat team, other resources often required at the scene of any significant incident include cleanup contractors, personnel and equipment from public works and environmental quality agencies, local government officials, representatives of the “responsible party,” or the person or group who either owns or is otherwise in control of the hazmat that was released.

To coordinate the many entities involved in this type of response, most localities have developed an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) that should spell out in some detail each agency’s responsibilities. This plan will likely refer to the role of local firefighters. Yet, during their training to the NFPA Operations level, how many firefighters learned of the details of this plan or even its existence? If they did learn of the plan, have they ever participated in an exercise to reinforce knowledge of their role and learn about the role of others? Furthermore, if EMS personnel and police officers have no knowledge or training in the plan, how can all these agencies be expected to perform as a cohesive team during a hazmat emergency?

Without the benefit of joint training before an incident, personnel will likely assume their roles as they believe them to be, which can have negative consequences. For example, just who is responsible for scene control and who is in charge of the incident? Do first responders know who is responsible for cleanup of spilled material, or will they take on this often-dangerous task themselves? Will there be a battle of wits between firefighters and law enforcement over whether to close a road? Does law enforcement know anything about the fire department’s incident management system? Many police officers may refuse to take direction from anyone other than their sergeant or lieutenant; the orders of a local fire chief may mean little.

Who is responsible for emergency decontamination? If it’s the fire department, are the rescue squad members aware of this? Do rescue squads provide their members with personal protective equipment, including SCBA? What about the local hospitals? Do any have decontamination stations available up at the entrance to their emergency room?

What if firefighters need an employee from the public works department to dig a retention basin using heavy equipment? What if respiratory protection and personal protective equipment are needed during this activity? Do public works department employees have access to this equipment and have they been trained in its use?

Without the benefit of advance planning, too many fire chiefs just assume that their personnel and those from other agencies will know what to do. The real world may spell out a different story–one that could result in injury or death to first responders. And the postincident critique will probably bring many of the problems encountered to light, with more than one suggestion for improving future operations. The unfortunate reality within most organizations is that promises to correct deficiencies will soon be forgotten, that is, until the next incident and the same issues reoccur.

Why wait for an incident? Why take a chance and just assume that everyone knows what to do? Why not conduct a simple, yet effective exercise? For years, fire departments have conducted drills for structure fires and vehicle extrication, yet when it comes to drilling for a hazmat incident, the initiative all too often stops.

Are fire departments convinced that the only ones who can plan for and conduct an exercise involving hazardous materials are highly paid consultants? Do firefighters feel compelled to wait for their emergency management officials to initiate an exercise, or are they just overwhelmed by the seemingly daunting challenge of coordinating a multiagency event?

Without a doubt, local fire departments members are fully capable of conducting a tabletop or even a full-scale exercise without spending a lot of money. However, the success of any training exercise of this magnitude will involve time and energy. This should be viewed as an investment with a guaranteed high rate of return. Try getting that in the stock market today!

In addition, as a result of a multiagency exercise, firefighters are likely to develop long-lasting working relationships with many others whose expertise and resources can mean the difference between success and failure in the future. Talk is cheap—boasting of what your agency can accomplish in a written EOP may do little to bolster others’ confidence. During an exercise, however, each agency will have the opportunity to develop the trust of others in their capabilities by allowing its personnel to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Furthermore, no one with any degree of real-world experience can deny that the individual personalities involved in an emergency response will play a role in how the incident unfolds. Those attending an exercise will learn about the personalities of other agencies’ representatives. Some may have large egos that need to stroked, some may refuse any advice if it doesn’t agree with what they already believe to be true, some may need to let everyone know how much they know, some may like to be in charge regardless of their rank, some can’t tell you the time without also telling you how a clock is made, and some cannot (or will not) make a decision without first asking permission. It’s better to know these traits before everyone meets on the street at 3:00 a.m. during an incident downtown involving an overturned highway cargo tank that displays “Poison” placards and you learn that you can’t get anything done because the guy from the public works department is a jerk! Of course, he may think the same of you.

To be successful, any exercise requires planning. Although a tabletop exercise might be conceived and executed within a few months, planning for a full-scale exercise involving the response of apparatus and hands-on participation by personnel may require at least six months. Although this might seem challenging, especially for volunteer fire departments that may already have too much to do with too few resources, the alternative to any exercise is to learn during an actual event when there may be a high price to pay for a less-than-stellar performance.

Remember too that most exercise design will focus on a local disaster of some sort, but if the design is not executed properly, the exercise itself can become a real-world disaster, much worse than the one you attempted to simulate. Results could include injuries to participants, lack of critical resources, and confusion resulting from the community and other public safety agencies mistaking the exercise for the real thing. These types of problems and many more like them are preventable by using a simple 10-step method for exercise design.

The 10-step method is a proven program local fire departments have used with a great deal of success. Important areas addressed include creating realistic goals and objectives, identifying stakeholders, and developing an exercise schedule, safety plan, and site map. Planners are also reminded to provide refresher training prior to the exercise to better prepare participants for their roles and ensure that everyone is poised to achieve their assigned objectives.

A key consideration of the 10-step method is that planners are encouraged to develop an exercise that is winnable. Anyone can design an exercise that can push first responders to the breaking point and beyond, yet a desirable exercise is one that is realistic, reinforces positive behavior, and leaves participants with a sense of accomplishment rather than failure. Remember to plan for success!

Below is a brief summary of each step in the planning process. The next edition of Hazardous Material Survival Tips will provide an actual application of the 10-step method along with excerpts from that event’s summary document. Until then, stay safe.

A 10-Step Method for Designing Full-Scale Exercises Planning Checklist

1. Identify exercise goals. Why do we need to do this? Is the exercise required by the EOP or some outside entity, or is it in response to a recent event that did not go well?

2. Identify stakeholders. What agencies and individuals would play a role during a real situation?

3. Develop performance objectives. What kinds of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) should be demonstrated during the exercise?

4. Design a realistic scenario. Develop a scenario that includes those activities that will require agencies and individuals to demonstrate their capabilities during the exercise.

5. Assign roles and responsibilities. Determine what equipment and personnel each participating agency will require.

6. Identify training needs. Determine if participants need training in the required KSAs identified earlier.

7. Develop a safety plan and site map. The safety plan should address real-world hazards and those related to exercise activities.

8. Develop an exercise schedule. The schedule should include estimated times for setup, start and finish, and major events during the scenario, including a postincident review.

9. Conduct a postincident review. This is best conducted in two phases, with one occurring immediately after the event and another several days later to allow participants time to compile notes and recommendations for improvements.

10. Prepare a summary document. This document includes all activities undertaken for the planning and execution of the exercise and helps avoid having to “reinvent the wheel” when preparing for the next exercise.

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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