Haz-Mat Training, Michigan-Style
Fire departments around the country have been scrambling to meet the new training requirements of OSHA’s “Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response” standard (29 CFR 1910.120). In Michigan the fire service recently worked with Michigan State University to develop and deliver 24-hour haz-mat training for first responders at the operations level. The result of their efforts is a training program that will soon be one year old.
The idea for the training program was originally conceived by representatives from several Midwestern universities. The universities and safety and health organizations formed the Midwestern Consortium for Hazardous Waste Worker Training and applied for funding from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. The consortium’s proposal was funded, and work began on developing training material and courses for hazardous waste workers and emergency response organizations, including firefighters.
We had to overcome several stumbling blocks during the initial phase of the project. First, the training material that Michigan State University developed was not acceptable because it lacked necessary input from the fire service. Several firefighters involved in the project early on became frustrated when their recommendations weren’t incorporated. As a result, the training material lacked an element of reality. Thus, we made the revisions that they suggested.
Another concern was whether or not the material tried to encompass too much information. The purpose of the program is to provide knowledge and skills to first responders, not hazmat team members. Our firefighter consultants suggested that if we did not make this clear throughout the training, some firefighters who attended the course would leave with the mistaken impression that they could handle any haz-mat incident. So we stress that the course is designed to train people to the operations level for haz-mat incidents as defined by OSHA and the National Fire Protection Association in NFPA 472 — and nothing more.
Despite the initial difficulties, the consortium and Michigan State eventually developed a curriculum that met OSHA requirements and laid to rest the concerns of the fire service. We were especially fortunate to have the cooperation of the Michigan Fire Fighter Training Council, which provides a range of courses for the state’s firefighters; its assistance was a big factor in designing a curriculum that met both OSHA requirements and its own standards for hazardous materials Level I and II training. Furthermore, the council’s certification of the course has helped us to recruit for and promote the program, as has following the guidelines established in NFPA 472.
The Training Council also helped to identify instructors from the fire service who had experience in haz-mat training. Of course, the council has offered its own haz-mat courses for years, but these programs were not designed to meet the recently enacted OSHA requirements.
Michigan State conducted a trainthe-trainer program to orient instructors to the course. In January 1989, 16 instructors recommended by the Training Council attended a four-day program at the Lansing Fire Academy, in which they learned the entire 24hour curriculum. Then, after each instructor presented a specific module of the program, we critiqued the presentation and the material and discussed adding exercises to make the curriculum more interesting.
This train-the-trainer program attracted the attention of the media. A number of transportation incidents had occurred recently in Michigan, so the media naturally wanted to know what was being done to educate the people who are responsible for protecting the public in these situations.
As a result of the train-the-trainer program, we made several modifications in the student manual and the instructor manual. Our instructors felt much more comfortable with the program knowing that their input was incorporated.
In addition to lectures and discussions, the curriculum includes a number of practical exercises that give the students an opportunity to learn by doing. The program begins with a discussion of the various laws and standards that deal with hazardous materials in the fire service. We also show a video of an actual incident and ask students to evaluate what should have been done to protect firefighters from exposure to haz mats.
The next section of the program addresses the effects of chemicals on health and the ways in which firefighters can identify and recognize potential chemical hazards. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we have been using the National Fire Academy’s program, which covers the subject in great detail.
Recognition and identification of chemical hazards is followed by a module on standard operating procedures and emergency response. We are finding that although many fire departments utilize SOPs for haz-mat incidents, they often do not include all the new OSHA requirements.
So far, the practical demonstrations involving the donning and doffing of Level A protective equipment have generated the most enthusiasm among participants. They experience the difficulty of maneuvering in protective clothing and learn to appreciate the job of haz-mat team members who actually mitigate such incidents.
In the decontamination unit, students set up their own decon line and run through a simulated decon exercise. Since decontamination is essential to protect the safety and health of firefighters, participants will draw on this experience time and time again in reallife situations.
Finally, students learn about containment and confinement through a simulated truck spill. In this exercise they are required to apply all the information they have learned throughout the course.
The Howell Fire Department hosted the first class that Michigan State presented in March 1989Because the city of Howell is located near a major interstate highway, the department was concerned about its ability to respond to transportation incidents. Forty-two people attended the class. Most of the participants were firefighters from the Howell Fire Department, but representatives from the Howell Police Department, the public works department, emergency services, and fire departments from surrounding communities also attended. The Howell city manager also attended the class, and he later admitted gaining a much greater appreciation of the fire department and its difficult, varied, and responsible work. Local press coverage of the class helped publicize the increasing responsibilities of the fire department to the community at large.
During the next six months, our instructors delivered the training course at 16 municipal locations within the state. As of December 1989, Michigan State University has provided training to 400 firefighters, both career and volunteer. With some 30,000 firefighters in Michigan, we have our work cut out for us.
During this grant year, which runs from September 1989 to September 1990, we are committed to conducting 20 programs and training 500 people. At that rate it would take us 60 years to train everyone. Clearly, more resources need to be directed to the training of firefighters and other first responders.
Our recruitment effort has been handled primarily by our instructors. In some instances we also have received help from the fire science programs at Michigan’s community colleges. Through the assistance of the Michigan State Fire Fighters Union, we have been able to publicize the program to all career departments in the state. Our presentation before the Michigan State Fire Chiefs Association, for which we prepared a videotape explaining the course content and the need for haz-mat training for first responders, also helped.
(Photos by author.)
Representatives from the fire service, the state police, and industry have discussed the creation of a hazardous-materials training facility for potential haz-mat team members. However, this plan is not meant to serve the first responders or the oncall fire departments that could not afford to send personnel to an off-site location for training. One of the primary advantages of the Michigan State University program is that we conduct the class right at the fire station.
The Michigan Fire Fighter Training Council could add the 24-hour curriculum to its own schedule of courses, but again, additional resources would be necessary if the program is to reach all the departments that may have to respond to haz-mat incidents. Of course, there is the possibility that the federal government will continue to fund the program. However, no one is counting on that.
Clearly, some funding mechanism is necessary to train more firefighters. In Michigan, the State Emergency Response Commission, created under Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, has recommended state legislation that would impose a fee on facilities based on the amount of chemicals they use or generate. Although this proposal has not met with much enthusiasm from industry, such an approach may be necessary to educate and protect the firefighters who protect them.
LEARNING FROM THE FIRST YEAR
We have learned a number of valuable lessons during the first year of the program. First, it is possible for the fire service to work with outside organizations in developing and delivering training. However, fire service personnel must be prepared to see their ideas through to inception. Only through persistence did the firefighter consultants who were involved with the Michigan State project ensure the creation of a training program that directly addresses firefighters’ concerns.
Second, inviting police departments and other agencies to participate in training has helped to build bridges between organizations that must cooperate at haz-mat incidents. The presence of both fire and police groups has made for a better program.
Third, press coverage has helped educate the public about the fire department’s responsibilities. With increased attention being drawn to the need for first responder training, we may be able to convince elected officials that haz-mat training is not only required but a good investment.
Finally, through our brief experience with this haz-mat training program, we can honestly attest to the high level of motivation that firefighters show in the classroom. They are sincerely concerned about the welfare of all firefighters. In fact, in several of the departments we achieved almost 100 percent participation. In more than 10 years of teaching in the area of occupational safety and health, I know of no other group that is as interested in or as dedicated to learning about the dangers of hazardous materials.