HAZ-MAT MEGATRENDS

BY DAVID F. PETERSON

The start of the millennium is a good time to review not only where we have been but also where we are headed in a haz-mat sense. To aid in reflection, I have researched many sources for information concerning haz-mat releases and response to these emergencies. Data were collected and interpreted, and megatrends, if you will, were identified. The purpose of all of this effort was to inform the fire service of what may be around the bend so that we can plan for improving our haz-mat response program.

It would be nice to have a crystal ball so we can look ahead and see what is coming. Since that is not realistic, we’ll have to settle for the next best thing: to gather the best information available to forecast trends. That is exactly what John Naisbitt and his staff did in the 1970s when they identified 10 major trends that would transform the lives of all Americans. Those trends were published in the 1982 book Megatrends. Many of Naisbitt’s predictions have come true, including his forecast that the national economy would evolve into a world economy. Naisbitt maintained that looking at trends can assist in preparing for the future and helping to target energies. “To anticipate the future, we must understand the present,” Naisbitt stressed.

Many sources of information on hazmat response exist. Information and statistics, for example, are readily available from the following governmental agencies and their respective Web sites:

  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) at http://atsdrl. atsdr.cdc.gov:8080.
  • Department of Transportation (DOT) at http://hazmat.dot.gov.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at www.epa.gov/erns.
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at www.osha.gov.
  • United States Fire Administration at www.usfa.fema.gov/nfdc.
  • Wisconsin Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, Inc. at www.wahmr.org.
  • Web site www.firenuggets.com.

Additionally, the National Fire Protection Association at and the International Association of Fire Fighters at have abundant information concerning haz-mat response. On a local level, haz-mat release information can be obtained from your Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC).

STUDIES REVEAL TRENDS

I also consulted three studies: one conducted in January 1990, one in April 1995, and one in December 1999. These studies collected data from 87 public agency haz-mat response teams from the entire United States through a multipage questionnaire. The information compiled identified many trends in the area of haz-mat team backgrounds, personnel and training, equipment and funding, previous expectations, and future expectations. The responses, which were very revealing and even surprising, may provide you with many valuable insights concerning what haz-mat response may look like in the future.

Governmental Haz-Mat Data

When reviewing data from the governmental sources, it becomes apparent that haz-mat response teams should continue to occupy a niche in protecting the public. Although OSHA reports a substantial decline in occupational exposures and injuries to workers from hazardous materials, the number of releases in our country are increasing. According to the DOT, more than 14,000 haz-mat releases from the five modes of transportation have occurred over each of the past several years. The trend, especially in the trucking mode, has increased yearly; more than 800,000 haz-mat shipments are made daily in the United States. There have been far more deaths and injuries associated with releases in the trucking mode than for all the other modes combined.

The ATSDR, through its Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES), also reports that there has been an increase in haz-mat spills each year. These data have been compiled annually since 1990 and currently involve 13 states. The summaries tell where and when haz-mat releases have occurred, who has been killed or injured, and the materials and quantities released. According to the ATSDR, nearly 12 percent of all victims at these releases are first responders. Another interesting ATSDR statistic is that approximately 80 percent of all haz-mat spills occur at a fixed facility-a fact that should assist in pre-emergency planning efforts.

The EPA reports a similar fact in a 1987 study, which notes that 75 percent of all spills happen at facilities vs. 25 percent in the transportation mode. A study of the EPA data, however, shows that the number of haz-mat releases has been decreasing over the decade; it is not clear whether some spills are not being reported. Consider that a release of a hazardous material does not have to be reported until it migrates off the facility or exceeds a reportable quantity (RQ). Spill reporting laws in each state are quite different; therefore, local spill reporting statistics should be more accurate.

Another noteworthy statistic, from the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center, is that an average of only 12 hazardous-materials releases were reported to it daily in 1999. This represents a 37 percent decrease since 1990.

U.S. Fire Administration 1998 data show that a fire department responds to a fire in the United States every 18 seconds but that there is a hazardous materials release every 65 seconds. The NFPA also reports that fire departments responded to 301,000 haz-mat releases in 1998, representing a 10.9 percent increase over 1997.

The trend that can be seen from these data is that haz-mat releases will continue to increase, especially in the trucking mode of transportation. As long as people handle hazardous materials-regardless of the size or type of container-there will be releases.

Haz-Mat Response Team Questionnaire Data

A questionnaire was sent out to the public sector haz-mat response teams in January 1990 to get a “snapshot” of haz-mat response teams in the United States-specifically, how the teams were made up in terms of personnel and training and the methods and equipment used to mitigate haz-mat emergencies. The information was intended as an evaluation tool for other teams wishing to see how they compare.

Five years later, in April 1995, the same questionnaire was mailed to the same teams that received them in 1990. The purpose was to determine whether they had made any changes in haz-mat response. Finally, the same questions were asked of the same teams in December 1999 to cap off the decade and obtain information that would assist in identifying trends. Keep in mind that this study is unscientific and that only a small percentage of the approximately 1,000 U.S. public agency haz-mat response teams were sampled.

Some highlights of the information acquired from the questionnaires are shared below:

  • The average number of responses per team has increased by 118.4 percent over the decade.
  • The time on-scene for these emergencies has decreased over the decade by 27.7 percent.
  • The average time on-scene was 2.25 hours in 1999.
  • The minimum amount of training to become a team member has decreased by 30.2 percent over the decade.
  • In 1999, a current team member required an average of 153.87 hours of training.
  • The average number of hours of training a month was 9.0 hours in 1999, an increase of 14.6 percent over the decade.
  • 100 percent of the teams compensate personnel for their service.
  • The average amount of compensation per person was $1,142 per year in 1999.
  • 75 percent of the teams charge the responsible party for equipment and supplies used at emergencies.
  • Industry has assisted 75 percent of the teams with equipment needs.

    In summary, the haz-mat team data reveal the following trends:

    • The amount of training time for becoming a haz-mat team member has decreased over the decade.
    • Once on the team, there is an increase in ongoing training.
    • The training developed is comprehensive and challenging from the standpoints of retaining skills and motivating personnel.
    • Compensation for team members has increased.
    • Although the number of haz-mat emergencies has increased, teams are spending less time on-scene, and fewer team members have been injured. This is most likely a result of the teams’ increased proficiency and experience.
    • Decontamination methods are diversifying; more teams are using air-purifying respirators, most likely in response to the terrorism threat.
    • The use of Level A and Level B protection has decreased.

    This information, from governmental and private sources, provides a good indication of what is currently happening in the haz-mat response world and can help you to more accurately anticipate what will happen in the future and to plan for what lies ahead, eliminating any surprises. With this information, you can formulate your program goals and ensure the success of your haz-mat program.

    Reflection such as this should not be reserved only for the end of a decade or a century; it should be ongoing. The Greek philosopher Plato said: “The unexamined life is not worth living!” I say: “The unexamined haz-mat program is not worth having!” Only through honest assessments and the use of data can we make improvements that will strengthen our haz-mat programs.

    Endnote

    1. For more information or a copy of this report, e-mail me at hazmatpetie@aol.com.

    DAVID F. PETERSON, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutenant with the Madison (WI) Fire Department. Previously, he was a training coordinator for the Regional Level A Haz Mat Response Team. He is the owner of Americhem Safety & Environmental, LLC, a haz-mat training and consulting firm in Janesville, Wisconsin. He is also a master trainer, an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy and the Emergency Management Institute, and a frequent lecturer and author. He is the founder and past president of the Wisconsin Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, Inc.

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