Teaching Hazmat in a Pandemic-Driven World

When the world essentially shut down in early 2020 because of COVID-19, nearly everyone had to scramble to figure out how to carry on with their work and family lives. In the fire and emergency services, we knew this all too well. The show still had to go on, and we had to keep our people as safe as possible. As with our school-aged children, part of that show is ensuring education continues.

For hazmat instruction, we need to be more creative than simply putting all our students in Level A suits for the entire training as a substitute for social distancing. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that this is a very fluid situation; flexibility and creativity will be required. Even as we sit here at the end of 2021, pockets of the world are showing sharp decreases in COVID-19 cases and deaths, while others are showing sharp increases. Vaccines are being widely distributed and are seemingly effective, yet the virus continues to mutate and, frankly, we don’t know what the winter will bring. What we do know is that hazmat training must happen. So, whether you are preparing for another round of COVID-19 restrictions, bracing for the next pandemic, or looking for a way to freshen your hazmat instruction, here are some tips to teach in a pandemic.

Constructing the Class

First, don’t feel you have to reinvent the wheel. Adult educators, such as university professors, have been on the frontlines of the pandemic teaching since its onset; we can learn from them. If structures need a preincident plan, a hazmat class will need a well-conceived education plan. So, if you need to teach some or all of the class remotely, decide how that will work. Will the students be required to log in at set class times, engage in self-guided study, or a combination of both?

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David Joyner, executive director at OMSCS (Online Master of Science in Computer Science) and online education at the college of computing at Georgia Tech, wrote a three-part guide for instructors venturing into the online teaching world. His articles are aimed squarely at university instructors, but much of it is transferrable to what we need to do when teaching hazmat. Joyner recommends the asynchronous or “self-guided” approach. Those students already working as firefighters will likely appreciate this freedom.

The instructor also needs to set goals for the course. Hands-on hazmat scenario training will have different goals from online classroom lessons. Be sure the teaching material and the goals line up; if not, adjust one or both. For example, understanding a four-gas meter may not be an achievable teaching goal for an online class, but knowing the differences in protection levels of various hazmat suits is. Getting comfortable in those suits needs to be done in person. Memorizing how different hazardous materials interact with different agents can be done in the comfort of the home.

Joyner recommends prerecording online class sessions rather than doing them live, which allows for better preparation with any visual aids you will use as well as a better presentation. He also suggests adding pauses in the recorded lecture to allow students time to solve a problem as a way to replicate the in-person classroom feel. If students are meeting at the same time, a prerecorded lecture can still be played and then paused to allow for video or chatroom discussion, to capture that back-and-forth interaction of a real classroom. That interactivity, Joyner writes, is a key to successful online learning.

Communication and Quizzing

Overcommunicating with students you only know virtually also is critical for helping build relationships and reducing confusion and surprises. For online lessons and assignments, state the obvious clearly and concisely—and repeat it often. As a litmus test, read the instructions to friends or family members who are not already in the fire service; if it is clear to them, it should be clear to firefighters and fire students.

You can simplify class communication, but only if deadlines are consistent and easy to remember. For example, make all assignments and projects due at 2359 hours on Sundays—or any day or time so long as they are the same and easy to recall; this reduces the complexity of your communication and the chances for errors.

Self-guided or online learning is not the place for overly complicated training, so when laying out training and assignments, keep them simple as well. For more complicated subjects, find ways to break them into smaller, simpler components, and tie those together at the end.

Multiple studies have shown that frequent quizzing can be an effective teaching tool. In a virtual classroom, quizzing and testing become problematic. One option is to use digital proctoring, which requires cameras and microphones to be on so you can watch them take the test. Joyner recommends avoiding that kind of proctoring as much as possible and, instead, rethinking the quiz. Open-book testing does away with the need for proctoring and further teaches the material in the book. For example, knowing how to find things in the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) quickly is a far more practical skill than memorizing its contents. Open-book ERG quizzes test and reinforce that desired skill.

Joyner suggests using test question pools, if available, to guard against students cheating or collaborating. He also says having them take tests at the same time with a preset ending time will dissuade collaboration or one person sharing answers.

Hands-On Teaching

Hazmat training done right requires hands-on evolutions—there’s no escaping it! Virtual reality, no matter the quality, is no substitute for reality. With the limitations the pandemic has placed on in-person evolutions, it is important we get the most out of them when we can hold them.

One way to do this is to devise what Joyner calls “preexperiment exercises.” The idea is to assign work that enhances the hands-on training. In our world, this could involve assigning students to critically assess videos of, for example, a railcar hazmat situation prior to a hands-on railcar exercise.

Video is an outstanding tool for pandemic training, so make a video of a hands-on evolution being done the proper way and share it with the students. Then have the students individually or in small groups video themselves executing the same evolution. Also, practicing with the department’s equipment is a great pandemic-friendly refresher and one that many departments don’t do enough of under normal circumstances. This too can be video recorded for evaluation and feedback. This use of video allows for the hands-on experience, instructor evaluation, and feedback.

Regarding feedback, have the students provide feedback on others’ videos; this will boost engagement and learning. Joyner says getting greater engagement is one of the hardest things to accomplish in a remote training environment, yet it is one of the important aspects of learning.

Another remote, yet hands-on, evolution is establishing a scenario that changes as it plays out over the radio. The instructor can be in the hot zone and the students can be the incident commander. In this evolution, instructors can evaluate radio traffic quality, scene assessment, and decision making. Take the time to script out different outcomes, such as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, to keep training fresh and students from sharing what happened.

There are two basic reasons clichés are overused: Either the speaker lacks imagination or the cliché holds a timeless and situational truth. For hazmat training in a COVID-19 world, two of these are spot-on. First, the only way to “eat the elephant” is one bite at a time. And, tied to that, it is key we strive for a one-percent improvement on every shift.

For pandemic-era hazmat training, plan your training to be as clear and as simple as possible without taking your eye off the “improvement prize.” And, by taking manageable steps to teach ourselves to be better teachers during this pandemic, we are likely to find that our firefighters are better prepared and that, when instruction gets back to normal, we are, in fact, better teachers overall.


PHIL AMBROSE is a battalion chief, hazmat specialist, and paramedic with the Glendale (CA) Fire Department. He is the founder of HazMatNation.com; has a BS in mechanical engineering from Loyola Marymount University; and trains first responders around the world using his patented hazardous materials simulation meter, the HazSim Pro.

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