An Emergency Guide Part 1

Almost everyone associated with the fire service will agree that one of the biggest problems facing firefighters today is the hazardous materials issue. What is not generally agreed upon is how to prepare firefighters to handle hazardous material incidents.

The argument does not stop at the education and/or training issues. Those responsible for equipping hazardous material response teams can’t come to a general agreement on what equipment such a team should possess and how much of it should be provided. There are also basic questions as to who should lead such a special team, a regular company officer or an officer who has been trained and educated alongside the members of the team? Where does one start, and, once started, how does one try to solve the problem?


The confusion that exists today among decision makers who are charged with the task of preparing a response team to protect their district from the dangers of a hazardous materials incident exists because there is more than one problem. Therefore, more than one solution is required. The mistake most commonly made is to assume that hazardous materials and the incidents in which they are involved are all one huge problem, and that this problem is too large to be handled effectively.

Indeed, what we most often refer to as “the hazardous materials problem” can be broken down into several basic problems that exist in all areas of the fire service. At this level, they’re manageable; and, if approached rationally, solved in some order of importance. What is required, of course, is to define the problem(s) so that the first step may be taken.


The first problem concerns the level of preparedness of those emergency personnel who will be called upon to handle a hazardous materials incident. Preparedness will be defined as being properly prepared to handle a hazardous materials incident, minimizing civilian and emergency personnel injury and damage to property and the environment.

The problem of preparedness contains three essential elements: education, training, and equipment.


This is probably the toughest of the three preparedness problems to solve, but it, too, can be broken down into simpler problems.

Since the number of chemical compounds and mixtures that are said to be hazardous are so plentiful (and growing daily), and since there are many different settings (transportation, industrial, commercial, retail, storage) where the incident may occur, education must be formal rather than informal. Formal education means a classroom setting (not necessarily a “traditional” classroom), with a trained teacher who will employ proper teaching methods, procedures, and aids (audio and visual).

Formal education also means that the student will be challenged. He will be expected to be prepared for each class, to pay proper attention, and to properly absorb the material being presented. He must participate at appropriate times, and, most importantly, be regularly tested on the presented and assigned material. Formal education means that the student will be graded, certifying successful course completion.

The course matter should include (but not necessarily be limited to) an introduction to basic chemistry in order that the student:

  • Have a basic understanding of chemical symbols.
  • Understand potential hazards by reading chemical formulas.
  • Understand chemical terms (oxidizer, acid, base, amine, alcohol, etc.).
  • Be able to read a material safety data sheet.
  • Master the names of 33 chemicals with which he may come in contact.
  • Know of and understand chemical references available to assess the hazard of a situation.
  • Know and understand the most likely behavior of materials in particular hazard classes. This means going through each separate class, listing possible multiple hazards, and explaining what is likely to happen in certain situations (when a fuel and oxidizer are mixed, or when moisture contacts a water-reactive material).

This approach gives the instructor an opportunity to introduce the most common chemicals in each hazard class, thus presenting small pieces of what is a body of knowledge thought to be impossible to assimilate. Each member of the class will gain a fairly intimate knowledge of a few hundred chemicals—99.9% of all those that the team will come into contact with.

How is this done? How is this seemingly impossible task of teaching chemistry to firefighters accomplished so that they come away with proper education?

Remember, break a problem into smaller problems. Those small problems can be handled.

  • Class should be held once a week so that plenty of time can be spent on the material.
  • No more material should be presented than can be absorbed between classes.
  • Students should be encouraged to work and study together.
  • Above all, let students know that they will be tested on the material during the next class.

The students should be constantly reminded that they are being presented with “textbook” chemistry and, therefore, with “textbook” solutions to problems. The solutions may or may not be valid at the emergency scene due to the great amount of variables that can affect the incident. However, basic chemistry will cover the most likely behavior under certain conditions. When those conditions change or don’t exist, the student will recognize this—and recognize the possibility that the most likely behavior will not occur. At the very least, he will be prepared for something other than the ordinary to happen.

There will be all sorts of excuses for firefighters not to enter a formal education program, but none of them hold water. The best excuse I’ve heard was, “But I’m just a poor, dumb firefighter, and I can’t go to college to learn chemistry.” This has been going on now for 12 years, and I’ve never met a “dumb” firefighter yet. Poor, maybe, but not dumb.

Often, the head of the education program at the college will be a firefighter or an ex-firefighter, guaranteeing some degree of sympathy for the special problems faced by the student.

Problems can be solved and will be if the fire service participates in the planning of such formal education programs.

The point is, the challenge must be issued so that it can be met. Designing an easy course of study so that students can get through with no effort and no challenge produces a student with no retention and no comprehension. What we need are properly educated, trained, and equipped members of a well-staffed team that works together smoothly, effectively, and safely. The only way to properly educate is to challenge.


The hands-on training of hazardous material team members is probably what most firefighters look forward to. Hands-on handling of incidents is the primary reason that they have volunteered for hazardous material duty in the first place. However, once the training begins, boredom sets in very rapidly. This usually occurs because someone has had the mistaken impression that training for hazardous material duty is going to be glamorous, exciting, and constantly stimulating.

In reality, even though the actual series of duties and tasks may be different than fighting a fire, they nevertheless are repetitious, boring, and sometimes uncomfortable. It may be very interesting to climb over a tank truck and learn where all the valves and controls are located, but once the task becomes the closing of a valve or the manning of controls in a cumbersome, hot, restricting chemical suit, it takes on a different flavor. The task must be repeated over and over again until one feels he can do it blindfolded, because, inside that suit, there may be times that one’s sight is so restricted that one may feel like he is blindfolded. The instructor’s biggest challenge is to find ways to make the training as interesting and attention-holding as possible.

There is no magic or mysterious nature to hazardous materials hands-on training. The basic responsibilities of the team are to:

  • Protect themselves.
  • Effect life rescue for anyone edangered by the incident.
  • Protect the environment.
  • Protect property.

The last two responsibilities have been reversed in the transition from firefighting training to hazardous materials hands-on training. The members must learn to search for anyone incapacitated by the incident and whose life may be threatened. They must learn to determine the identity of the hazardous material and the type of threat posed by the incident. They must then determine if they should involve themselves in the incident by taking some positive action involving the hazardous material (this is the first major departure from previous training, where the first action taken is to attack the fire). After size-up of the incident, the decision may be made to withdraw and let the incident run its course with no active involvement by any emergency personnel.

If direct involvement in the incident is called for, the steps necessary for containment or control of the incident will be taken next. The team members may have the very “exciting” responsibility of turning a valve, driving a plug to stop a leak, digging a trench to divert a liquid, or spreading a neutralizing agent with a shovel. There may be several other seemingly mundane acts to perform to control the incident and/or to bring it to a safe conclusion, and these must be done over and over again during training. These evolutions must be done in circumstances as close to what can be described as being as real as possible. This means getting into the chemical suit and performing all of the above tasks and dozens more.

Once one has become proficient at such jobs as picking up various size tools and using them from within the confines of the encapsulating suit, he must then perform every single task again, this time in a simulated rainstorm, or at night, or with vision obscured by a mist or fog. And once every member of the team has put in several hundred hours of very tedious hands-on training and has been declared competent to continue to be a member of the team, he must then be subjected to a rigorous and periodic training update to make sure he maintains his skills.

A very important part of the training should be designed to teach the responder to stop before an attack is mounted. The first rule at any hazardous materials incident is that the responder must approach the incident with extreme caution, with detection of the hazardous material as the first duty, followed rapidly by an attempt to identify said material.

Every single resource at the command of the team should be used to identify the material and its hazards as quickly as possible. Once identified, the best methods and materials to be used to contain and/or control the hazards must be determined. These methods and materials should then be used, with constant feedback as to their success or failure. The tactics may first be tested on a very small area of the incident or on a very small amount of the hazardous material.

The time for checking resource books for methods of control is long before an incident occurs. If a team does not know how to handle corrosives, oxidizers, or any other hazard class before they arrive at an incident, the team is in a whole lot of trouble. This is not to say that references may not be consulted at the incident. Indeed, the physical and chemical properties of most chemicals will have to be checked at the scene. However, the material may have previously been identified and that information radioed to the team en route to the incident. In this way, they should be ready to begin tactical operations as soon as they arrive.

Training facilities may not be readily available to every department interested in developing a hazardous materials response team. This must not be a deterrent to the training.

Departments may develop a hands-on training program on a cooperative basis (like mutual aid agreements) to lower costs.

Another alternative is to convince the local college that may be offering the formal education to develop the necessary hands-on training program, complete with all the necessary safety equipment and hardware. Usually, a well-prepared plan and a guarantee of support for the program by supplying students is all that’s needed.


Just because equipment is listed as the third of the three essential elements of preparedness for handling a hazardous materials incident does not mean that it is the least important. Just as there is no general agreement as to exactly how to achieve the other two elements, there is no general agreement on exactly what equipment will best do the job of protecting team members and help bring the incident to a safe conclusion. One of the reasons is that in the area of protective clothing, there is no one material from which encapsulating suits are made that will offer protection from all chemical attacks. The same is true for gloves, boots, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and other items of personal safety. As for tools and other equipment, there is no great controversy since failure of some of these items is not as closely related to human injury or death.

Next month, we will continue with our emergency guide. We will list examples of equipment necessary for the successful mitigation of a hazardous materials incident and what to do as a responder until you become properly prepared

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