The scope of the hazmat team will be dictated by the chief of the organization or host agency. Hazmat responses may be limited to a smell of gas and Carbon Monoxide calls while other teams may handle large rail and highway incidents. It is important to understand the law and regulations that govern the hazmat community. Many administrators and public officials are not aware of these laws and need to be educated about them. Some members look at this as trying to justify an existence, but it is more along the lines of building the foundation by educating those involved as to the reason for the existence.
When a person is familiar with the rules they are better equipped to work within them. The same goes for the personnel involved on the team. It is not uncommon to have members of the team who are responsible for the day-to-day activities of the team, and yet they have no idea as to why or how the team exists. In some areas this may need clarification and definition by a higher authority, or as in North Carolina, it is spelled out in the state contract for the teams within the regional system.
The expectations of the community are very important and communicating these expectations is equally important. This is accomplished through networking with facilities within the community or response area. It is vital that the team have representation on the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), and conduct regular site visits, or pre-incident surveys.
The LEPC is an excellent place to meet with plant managers, safety managers, leaders in the response community as well as local officials. During these meetings hazmat response personnel will quickly learn what the community expects from the team.
A particular facility may anticipate that the local fire department is equipped to handle a hazardous materials event, not realizing that the closest hazmat resource is 30 to 40 miles away. At the same time this same facility may not realize that the local hazmat team is more than capable of handling an event at their facility.
When a shortfall is encountered, often times the facility of interest may be able to assist the local hazmat team in funding or training opportunities, this benefits both parties involved. The hazmat team will receive assistance with training in the way of funding, equipment, or props, and the facility receives a response team that can assist in answering the call to their facility.
A team’s level of preparedness can be determined by performing a threat and vulnerability assessment. Each facility should perform an internal threat and vulnerability assessment to determine their strengths and weaknesses, but this should also be performed by the hazmat response agency. Included in the hazmat team’s assessment are things such as transportation routes that may not be addressed through the LEPC directly.
Looking at the Tier II reports each year will also assist the hazmat team in determining the greatest threats within the community or response area. This must be reinforced with pre-incident surveys to better understand the specific facilities.
Transportation routes can be included in this as well. The hazmat team can easily determine, based on the chemicals at the facilities, what is being transported through the community, but there are just as many, if not more, that travel through the community by highway and rail without stopping. These pose just as great a likelihood of being involved in an accident. To determine what chemicals are transported through the community, visit a local truck stop or park near a highway overpass and observe what passes by. This exercise will also be a training session in looking up substances in the Emergency Response Guide and other reference materials. The same can be done for local rail traffic.
After completing the threat and vulnerability assessment the team will need to determine or review the training of its personnel. Based on the scope and assessment the training requirements will be set. The basic training requirements will need to be determined first. Are the members of the team going to be required to meet the OSHA HAZWOPER 40 hour minimum or will they train to the NFPA 472 standard.
If a facility in your response area contains a large amount of Anhydrous Ammonia for a refrigeration process, there is the likelihood of a release. Because of this it is wise for the team to meet with the facility to see exactly what their expectations are, along with available resources. If the facility has a response team on site, confirm their level of training as well as their competency. This again can be accomplished by performing pre-incident surveys as well as offering to train together at the facility. This will allow the plant personnel to train hazmat personnel on the areas of concern within the facility as well as allowing the plant personnel learn about the hazmat team.
The team can gain a wealth of information and recognition by networking with other teams and programs in the area. Speaking with neighboring jurisdictions and simply exchanging capabilities, strengths and weaknesses will help. Networking with other agencies in the area can also prove beneficial. Industrial teams associated with facilities in the area can offer site specific information, or chemical specific assistance. Other state assets, such as regional hazmat teams, and a Civil Support Teams (CST) can assistance. Clean-up contractors can also assist local teams with training and contact information.
With illicit drug labs on the rise it may also be wise to initiate contact with the local law enforcement agencies to see how they will work an incident. These teams may be expecting a majority of the support functions to be performed by your team, when in fact they are only trained to decon. It is also helpful to meet these individuals ahead of time to establish relationships.
State and federal assets are always a good contact to be made ahead of time. It is likely these organizations will be key players when responding to suspicious packages, bomb threats and state and federal buildings.
A hazardous materials response team needs to understand its scope and expectations to operate properly. This can be accomplished easily by networking with organizations that are likely to respond to calls with your team. Make sure your team is trained to answer the calls it says it will handle, and more importantly network with others to get to this level if possible.