As with any new function, the fire service has experienced its share of growing pains in establishing hazardous materials response capabilities. Some key difficulties include:

1. Varying perceptions on what constitutes a hazardous materials response team. No standard or guideline has been developed yet that spells out what is expected of a hazardous materials response team in terms of minimum training and equipment requirements.

Without clear-cut rules on equipment requirements, Rube Goldberg-type approaches to this problem can result, possibly causing fire fighter casualties.

To illustrate, consider the selection and purchase of specialized equipment. A number of response teams have developed equipment lists that look nice on paper but are impractical for actual effective operations. For example, while pH meters are very accurate in determining the strength of corrosive materials, litmus paper usually will do the same job easier and cheaper. When purchasing equipment, it is important to consider who the final user will be. In some cases, it may be better to sacrifice accuracy for simplicity and durability. In essence, purchase fire fighter-proof equipment.

2. Limited number of hazardous materials incidents. Although the reported number of hazardous materials emergencies are increasing, much of this increase is due to greater governmental controls and an enhanced awareness on the part of both the fire service and the general public.

Where a gasoline spill used to be regarded as a simple washdown, it is now a hazardous materials incident that may require diking sewers and streams, controlling the source of the leak, and foaming, neutralizing or absorbing the product. Same problem, different response.

Three elements form the basis of a fire fighter’s basic knowledge-training, education and experience. If any element is missing or weak, it degrades the overall effectiveness and capabilities of both the fire fighter and the fire officer. This same idea can be applied to hazardous materials response team members.

With the exception of metropolitan areas, the incidence of hazardous materials emergencies is limited. This is not to say that they do not occur or that a response team approach is not useful. However, it is difficult to have personnel participate in hundreds of hours of both training and education courses and not have the opportunity to practice their skills. After a period of time, interest starts to wane and the necessity and value of the program are questioned. It is important to recognize that not every area requires a hands-on oriented response team.

3. Failure to recognize varying levels of hazardous materials emergencies. The thousands of hazardous materials incidents that occur annually range from small liquid spills at laboratory facilities to major “campaign” operations, such as the train derailment at Livingston, La. in late 1982. It is impossible to train emergency response personnel to handle all possible chemicals. However, this is the very philosophy of many hazardous materials training programs.

There are basically three levels of hazardous materials incidents (see Fire Engineering, February 1983). The first level involves minor incidents that are easily contained. Level II incidents require handling by a regionalized response team proficient in the use of leak and spill control equipment, specialized protective equipment, monitoring devices, etc. A level III incident is a major disaster, necessitating the use of state, federal and private sec tor resources. Choosing whic h personnel should train in handling the once-in-a-lifetime level III disaster is dependent on their hazardous materials response experiences.

4. Disparity between hazardous materials training programs and actual events. It is not uncommon for hazardous materials response teams to fail to define the exact scope of their operations If responsibilities are uncertain, how can an effective training program be designed.

Many fire department response teams are using external organizations and consultants to satisfy their training needs. The fire department’s requests are usually very simple, “Teach us everything there is to know about hazardous materials. The usual result is that the fire department receives lots of “nic e to know” information that does not meet its needs at the local level. The fire department must then fill in the gaps as best it can.

A more productive approach would be to determine what the specific needs and problems are at the local level, then design a training program geared towards satisfying those needs.

5. Lack of a national focal point for hazardous materials response teams. The current lack of a national focal point for hazardous materials response teams has led to a number of problems in the field. With no mechanism for information transfer, response teams are always reinventing the wheel in regards to team development issues, vehicle design and layout, equipment purchasing, training programs and standard operating procedures. The same problem faced the emergency medical services in the early and mid-1970s.

The Hazardous Materials Response Team Subcommittee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs is starting to make inroads in this area, but only time will tell how successful it will be. Perhaps a hazardous materials response team technician’s assoc iation will be formed, modeled after the International Association of Bomb Technicians or the International Association of Arson Investigators. Regardless of the mechanism, however, some focal point is needed on a national level.

In light of the problems just addressed, a system is necessary to achieve the following objectives:

  • Integrate the varying perceptions of hazardous materials response teams and formulate standard definitions.
  • Respond to the changing needs of the fire service relative to hazardous materials.
  • Recognize the varying levels of hazardous materials emergencies and their respective training requirements.
  • Provide a mechanism for incorporating what is learned at actual hazardous materials emergencies into training programs.

An approach that is responsive to both the problems and objectives is the development of a professional qualifications standard for hazardous materials technicians. Two available options are:

1. Development of a fire fighter/hazardous materials technician professional qualifications standard. Building on the previous work of the National Fire Protection Association 1001 Committee, this appears to be one approach for establishing a qualification standard. The National Professional Qualifications Board for the Fire Service (Pro Board), which has responsibility for coordinating, accrediting and supervising national programs of certification in the fire service, is already well-established.

With more states gearing up to participate in both the fire fighter and the instructor certification process, it appears that this alternative could be accepted without much controversy. The primary argument against this option is that industry response teams, which make up most of the response teams in the United States, may not be able to participate in the accreditation process.

2. Development of a separate hazardous materials technician qualification system. In this case, a separate qualification system with no formal ties to the fire fighter qualification standards would be established. Because of its previous efforts in voluntary consensus standards with both the fire service and industry, the NFPA may be a legitimate choice as an umbrella organization. Such a system could be modeled on the NFPA’s previous work with the Marine Chemists Qualification System.

A separate qualifications standard could also be developed by any other interested organization such as the IAFC or the Chemical Manufacturers Association. However, in reviewing potential sponsoring organizations, it is important that the following factors be evaluated:

  • Previous work in professional qualifications/certification processes.
Hazardous materials team members must become proficient in many areas, including the use of specialized equipment and clothing. In a training exercise, team members use a Chlorine A kit on a leaking chlorine cylinder, above. Others in encapsulated suits, left, use a Chlorine B kit on a 1-ton cylinder.
  • Proposed certification process.
  • Acceptability and recognition by both the public and private sectors.

In the development of a conceptual hazardous materials qualification system, a need exists for a model career ladder that tracks the progression of an individual in the hazardous materials field. One system that has been used successfully by several fire departments is:

Hazardous materials trainee is the entry-level position for response team members. In general, most fire departments have minimum qualifications that must be achieved before consideration is given for team membership. Some common examples include the completion of accredited college-level hazardous materials courses and local-level training classes, experience as a fire fighter, emergency medical technician certification, and so forth. In order to move to the next level, the trainee must satisfy a number of performance-oriented objectives in areas such as the use of specialized protective clothing, fire fighting foams, monitoring devices, etc.

Hazardous materials technician is the general response team member. This individual possesses both the knowledge and expertise necessary to successfully handle a hazardous materials emergency and be well-versed in the manipulative skills required for operating and handling specialized equipment.

Hazardous materials specialist. While the technician is welloriented in the general aspects of hazardous materials response, the specialist is an individual who is well-qualified in one or more specific areas. For example, many fire fighters also function as radiological monitoring officers for their community and would then be regarded as hazardous materials specialists — radiological emergencies.

Hazardous materials officer. As with the fire officer, this individual must possess expertise in both the manipulative and managerial aspects of incident control. The officer must be proficient in site management, command post operations, additional sources of assistance, etc.

These position terms and requirements are cited merely as a starting point for discussion. Obviously, a great deal of time and effort will be required to develop a nationally acceptable qualification system.

The development of such a qualification system would provide:

  1. Assistance in outlining specific responsibilities and requirements of a hazardous materials response team.
  2. A list of specific minimum training requirements for response teams.
  3. More cost-effective decision making regarding personnel training and the purchase of specialized equipment and vehicles.
  4. The development of a single national focal point for fire department response teams.
  5. The potential for reducing fire fighter injuries and deaths at hazardous materials emergencies.
  6. Response team certification and accreditation, which can provide a mechanism for the disbursement of both state and federal monies relative to hazardous materials response.
  7. From a legal perspective, performance-oriented qualifications provide visible evidence that a community is providing well-trained and competent individuals to handle potential emergencies in the community.

Response to hazardous materials emergencies will continue to be a key responsibility of the fire service through the 1980s. However, if the fire service is to meet the dual challenge of handling the hazardous materials problems within the current environment of fiscal restraint, some changes will be necessary. The establishment of a hazardous materials professional qualification system is one of the first steps in meeting that challenge.

Greg Noll is also a member of the Berwyn Heights Fire Department in Prince George’s County, Md., and of the Prince George’s County Hazardous Materials Response Team.

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