Chief fire officers spend the majority of their time handling administrative duties and managing the overall operation of the fire department. Rarely do they respond to incidents; if they do, it is only after the situation has reached disastrous proportions.

Unless they have been trained or acquired knowledge through experience, fire officers have limited knowledge of how to technically manage a large hazardous-materials incident. Even more knowledge is needed when a mixture of chemicals or unknown hazardous chemicals are involved in an incident.


The terms strategy, tactics, and tasks are defined as follows for our purposes.

Strategy–the overall command and direction of the incident.

Tactics–the management of operational activities to achieve specific objectives.

Tasks–the activities undertaken to achieve tactical objectives.

The chief officer who is to serve as the incident commander of an incident involving hazardous materials must quickly learn the overall scope of the situation, consider the safety of all involved, determine the objectives to be achieved, review the strategy and tactics for the progress (or lack of progress) toward these objectives, and develop possible alternative courses of action.

The chief officer normally arrives at the scene after an initial strategy has been developed and mitigation tactics have started. Thus, on assuming command, the chief officer should do the following:

Be briefed by the incident commander who is being relieved as to the following:

–the location of the fire, spill, leak, and damaged or exposed containers;

–the current extent of the hazards and exposures (and damage to containers);

–the current conditions that could affect the situation–i.e., weather, time;

–the potential for extension of the hazards and the means of extension (wind, gradient, or explosion, for example);

–the current deployment of apparatus and personnel assignments;

–the effectiveness of control efforts;

–an appraisal of additional resources that may be needed;

–a review of the evacuation possibilities (firefighters, civilians); and

–a review of the tactical control documentation.

Ensure the site safety of all emergency responders; this includes assigning an overall safety officer if not already appointed.

Review (or institute) the incident management system (IMS) with the proper delegation of responsibilities to a hazardous-materials group (HMG).

Complete the command staff by appointing a public information and a liaison officer.

Obtain technical assistance and resources.


The incident management system usually includes four sections: operations, logistics, planning, and finance. The HMG is part of the operations section and should include the following positions:

Hazardous-materials group supervisor. Implements and directs the HMG operations and ensures safety by area monitoring and requiring proper personal protective equipment, assigning resources, and reporting on the progress of operations.

Entry leader. Directs rescue and mitigation activities within the restricted or exclusion zone and maintains control of personnel and equipment.

Assistant safety officer–hazardous materials. Coordinates all HMG safety and has full authority to alter, suspend, or terminate any activity judged to be dangerous.

Site access control leader. Controls the movement of all people and equipment at the hazard site to ensure contamination is controlled.

Technical specialist–hazardous materials reference. Identifies the product(s) and provides technical information and assistance to the HMG.

Decontamination leader. Responsible for providing and supervising all decontamination operations.

This group has the technical training and experience to perform the tactics and tasks. It will also serve as a technical resource to the incident commander during the decision-making process or when questions arise. Incident commanders who become involved in performing the tactics or carrying out tasks are not doing their job.


The incident commander is responsible for the strategic level of the command structure and takes overall command of the incident. An incident action plan should cover all strategic responsibilities, all tactical objectives, and all support activities needed during the entire operation. An incident action plan defines where and when resources will be assigned to the incident to control the situation. This plan is the basis for developing a command organization, assigning all resources, and establishing tactical objectives. The strategic level responsibilities include the following:

setting the overall outcome goal,

determining the appropriate strategy–offensive or defensive,

establishing overall incident objectives,

setting priorities,

developing an incident action plan,

obtaining and assigning resources,

predicting outcomes and planning further operations based on the predictions, and

assigning specific objectives to the tactical operating level.

NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) Standard 472, Standard on Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents–1997, requires that incident commanders have the following competencies:

the ability to analyze the hazardous-materials problem by collecting and interpreting hazard and response information and by estimating potential outcomes.

the ability to plan the response by identifying response objectives and potential action options, approving the level of personal protective equipment, and developing a plan of action.

the ability to implement the planned response by establishing the incident management system, directing private and governmental resources, and providing a focal point for information transfer to the media and government officials.

the ability to evaluate the progress of the action plan, report and document the incident, and conduct a multiagency postincident analysis.


To assist the incident commander in performing strategic operations, a simple decision-making model has been developed:

Set objectives.

Evaluate the collected data.

Review operational alternatives.

Anticipate the unexpected.

Select the safest feasible alternative.

Implement the decision.

Monitor the progress and reassess continuously.

Take corrective action if necessary.

A serious question at hazardous-materials incidents is, What will happen if nothing is done?

Doing nothing is not a normal course of action for firefighters. Thus, it may be a difficult decision to make. However, if the actions of the firefighters will not significantly change the outcome of the incident, there is no need to risk injury or death to firefighters or expend resources unnecessarily.

Generally, six tactical operations are feasible at hazardous-materials emergencies. They include the following:

Contain–hold the liquid (vapors), solid, or gas to the container of origin.

Confine–hold the liquid or solid (dusts) to the smallest possible area.

Control–use physical or chemical means to restrict the movement of liquids and gases.

Extinguish–control combustion often using special agents.

No action–allow the situation to run its own course to stabilization.

Withdraw–remove emergency response personnel for a distance of one kilometer after placing unmanned streams in operation.

Regardless of which operation is selected, two other actions must always be considered: rescue and evacuation. All victims should be rescued if this can be accomplished safely with the personnel and resources available. Do not recover bodies until the situation has stabilized. If the situation cannot be mitigated, evacuate all emergency responders and exposed civilians to a safe location.

Since hazardous materials are found in stationary locations such as manufacturing facilities, warehouses, and distribution points or along transportation routes such as highways, railroads, and waterways, emergency responses can often be planned in advance. Preincident planning must be thorough and should cover the following: anticipated incident requirements, resources available, sources for additional supplies that may be needed, all strategic alternatives, and necessary contingencies. In view of today`s increasing technology, the issue is not if a hazardous-materials incident will occur, but when.

GENE P. CARLSON, a fire education and training specialist, is director of international marketing of Oklahoma State University`s Fire Protection Publications, representing IFSTA nationally and internationally. Carlson is a member of various committees of the National Fire Protection Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He served on the staff of the National Fire Academy, the University of Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and the University of Illinois Firemanship Training Program.

No posts to display