Here is the scenario: You are on-site investigating an odor in a warehouse. The incident turns into a full hazardous materials box alarm. The first-in company takes some quick decisive actions: evacuating the structure, denying entry, obtaining information from the occupants, and calling for additional resources. These first decisions and actions prevented injuries and exposures. The first-in company set the tempo.

You establish hazard control zones (Hot, Warm, Cold); a decon station, including a dressing area; and a medical area.

The haz mat unit is busy; personnel are coming and going. The decision is to enter the warehouse to determine exactly which chemicals are involved.

It is time to ask these questions:

  • Is your entry team ready to enter the Hot Zone?
  • Are you ready to have the entry team enter the Hot Zone?
  • Who needs to be ready before the team can enter the Hot Zone?

These questions have been around as long as hazardous materials teams have been around. With new technology and the latest instrumentation, you would think these questions would be easy to answer. But, they are not. If anything has happened over time, it is that these questions have become even more difficult to answer. We rely on training and experience to answer these and other questions that may arise during a hazardous materials incident. These answers will depend on the following factors.




Does everyone know the mission, the objectives, the hazards, the risks, and the emergency action plan?


  • Are there enough haz-mat technicians for the operation?
  • Are enough support personnel on-scene?
  • Will there be enough personnel for a long-term operation?
  • How long will it take to get sufficient personnel?
  • Where will the incident be when enough personnel are on-scene?
  • Has a briefing been done with all the appropriate incident command system (ICS) players?
  • Have all group/division supervisors briefed their personnel?


  • Has a chemical profile been completed for all chemicals involved?
  • What level of protection is needed:
  • What type of monitoring and detection are needed?
  • What are the hazards:
  • What type of decon is needed?
  • If multiple chemicals are involved, what will happen if they mix?
  • Have treatment guidelines been established for exposures?
  • Have treatment guidelines been passed on to the medical team?


  • What type of technical decon is being used?
  • Are there enough personnel to staff decon?
  • Is personnel decon needed and set up?
  • Is an emergency decon plan in place?
  • Are any special decon solutions needed?


  • Has a medic unit been assigned to support the haz-mat team?
  • Is medical monitoring being done:
    -post entry?
  • Have exclusionary criteria been established?
  • Have hospitals been prealerted?
  • Are special medications, treatments, or antidotes needed if an exposure occurs? Can they be obtained?


    • Has a haz-mat safety officer been assigned?
    • Has the site safety/action plan been completed?
    • Have the haz-mat safety officer and incident safety officer been communicating?
    • Have evacuation areas been established?
    • Has an emergency action plan been established?

    RIT/FAST (Backup Team)

    • Are procedures for dealing with an emergency in place?
    • Do you have adequate and appropriate rescue equipment?
    • Have you provided for transportation?
    • Do you have suit-removal equipment?
    • Have you made provisions for personal and emergency decon?
    • Have positions been preassigned?

    It may seem that more and more questions are being asked and that the original questions still remain unanswered. In fact, this is true. The only way to answer the original question is to answer the other questions.

    Who needs to be answering these questions? Would you be surprised if I said, “Everyone on the incident”? Hopefully not, because no one person can answer all these questions. Much information-gathering is needed before these questions can be answered.

    Once you have obtained the needed information based on these questions, it must be passed on to all the players involved in the incident. To have the operation run smoothly and safely, everybody needs to be on the same page and operating from the same game plan.


    Breaking the information-gathering function into manageable areas is the best way to get to the answers and pass them on. Developing an action plan within the haz-mat operations also will help. To facilitate the gathering and dissemination of this information, many haz-mat response teams break the haz-mat group into the following components:

    • Operations. One person in charge of the Hazardous Materials Group.
    • Safety. A haz mat safety officer to coordinate the Hazardous Materials Group’s safety issues with the ICS safety officer, who works directly under the Haz Mat Operations officer and must also work closely with Research, Medical, Entry, and Decon.
    • Medical. An assigned Medic unit or paramedic to take care of the members of the Hazardous Materials Group. Medical will be responsible for pre- and post-entry monitoring and the treatment of members, if needed. Medical must work closely with Research and Safety to ensure that they have the necessary information to do their job.
    • Entry. This person coordinates the entry teams and the support needed to get the entry teams ready and will be responsible for all communications with the entry teams when they enter the Hot zone. The Entry Team officer will work closely with Decon, Research, and Safety.
    • Decontamination. This person coordinates the Decon operations, making sure the proper Decon is set up and staffed and there are enough support personnel for dressing and operating the Decon corridor for an extended time. Decon will work closely with Research, Entry, and Safety.
    • Research. This person gathers all the information pertaining to the hazardous materials so that the proper decisions are made for mitigating the situation at hand. Research will work closely with all areas; it is a very pivotal part of the haz-mat incident.
    • Logistics. This person will get the needed equipment and supplies to the different areas of the Haz Mat Group; troubleshoot problems with the equipment and gear in use; and work closely with Research, Entry, and Decon. This individual may be asked to assist with equipment and supplies outside the Haz Mat Group.

    Not every incident will necessitate having a separate person in each position. The most important thing at all hazardous materials incidents is to address each of the components so that the proper actions are taken to mitigate the incident in the safest possible manner.

    • • •

    Handling a hazardous materials incident can be very complex; you may need a large staff and much equipment to mitigate the incident. Having and executing the game plan are paramount in mitigating an emergency incident. This is also true in hazardous materials training exercises. As the accomplished football coach Vince Lombardi has said: “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” In other words, train like you play, and you will play like you’ve trained.

    DOMENICK P. IANNELLI JR., a 30-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief in Goodyear, Arizona, where he is the special operations chief and the B shift commander. He previously served 25 years with the Fairfax County (VA) Fire Department, where he retired as a company officer and served 20 years on a rescue company and 24 years on the hazardous materials team.

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