We must also remember that the vast preponderance of grants do not provide for the sustainability of the equipment procured, therefore budgetary planning for expenses related to the perishable items or components obtained through grant programs is a must in today’s economic climate.
The greatest sustainability roadblock to hazmat teams at the present time is funding. The tough economic times that have existed since the economic downturn of 2008 have often led to shrinking tax bases, declining revenues, reduced grant funding and the decreasing of hazmat team budgets. As we all know, many pieces of hazmat equipment are “perishable” in nature. Air monitoring sensors have a finite lifespan. Calibration gas is depleted through use or may reach its expiration date. Vapor protective hazmat suits may fail annual testing or in some cases reach the end of a stated shelf life. Reagents in chemical classification kits may need to be retired because of age. Hazmat vehicles grow older and incur increased maintenance costs.
With the aforementioned being the case, what can we do to maintain the sustainability of our hazmat team? The answer is not all gloom and doom, however we sometimes are required to perform a little “out of the box” thinking and exercise our creativity. One possible solution is to recoup our operating costs at incidents through reimbursement from the Responsible Party (RP). If governmental ordinances are present that allow for such an option, hazmat teams can actually seek redress for not only the materials used (suits, tools, etc.), but also reimbursement for the amount of time spent on scene by personnel and also the apparatus used. An effective method of organizing such claims is a spreadsheet containing applicable formulas that simply require the entering of the time spent on scene per person and their corresponding rank or function (firefighter, hazmat technician, company officer, etc.), the time on scene of apparatus by type (hazmat unit, engine, ladder, etc.), and any supplies or tools used. Pre-determining the cost per hour of each type of asset and integrating those values into the formulas can generate an invoice generated with a minimum of effort and time invested that can be submitted to the RP.
Another solution to the funding challenges discussed above is the pursuit of grant monies for equipment that continue to exist. An example of such grant funding is the Assistance to Firefighters Program (also known as the Fire Act Grant), which allows departments and their related hazmat teams to apply for federal funding to be used in the purchase of hazardous materials response equipment and PPE. In addition, such funds can be used to pay for training activities. It is imperative that applicants follow the grant guidance, and it is always beneficial to have personnel on staff that is experienced and skilled in grant writing to enhance the possibility of success in the grant process. We must also remember that the vast preponderance of grants do not provide for the sustainability of the equipment procured, therefore budgetary planning for expenses related to the perishable items or components obtained through grant programs is a must in today’s economic climate. Even in the case of equipment not purchased through grant funding, if major expenses — such as the replacement of a vehicle or the upgrading of SCBAs — can be forecasted and worked into the budgetary planning process, the chances of successful funding increase dramatically since such expenditures will not be a surprise that pops up “out of nowhere.”
The need for relevant and frequent training can also present sustainability challenges for hazmat teams. Although 29 CFR 1910.120 addresses the topical areas to be covered in annual recurrent training, the standard does not stipulate the number of hours required each year. Some state fire certification entities mandate a minimum number of hours for state recertification, and the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) may also set internal requirements (e.g. in my department each hazmat technician is required to participate in a minimum of 24 hours of technician-level training per year). The operative challenge then becomes the provision of training that is truly useful and holds the interest of attendees, all the while remaining within budgetary restraints. We should start by looking at what we have right in front of us — our own personnel. Your hazmat team may have members that are Technician-Level instructors, but even if not there are always personnel that are proficient in certain areas of expertise that can serve as leaders of training evolutions. In this information age, a plethora of knowledge is also available — albeit it should be verified — on the Internet and in print form. As the old axiom states, “Teaching something is the best way of truly learning it,” and by encouraging participatory instruction we are reinforcing the learning process.
Federally Funded Training
Another venue for training opportunities are the various federally funded courses held in various locations throughout the country, such as some offerings of the Railcar/Highway Transportation Specialist course in Pueblo, Colorado; various Hazmat/WMD courses in Anniston, Alabama; and a range of Explosives courses in Socorro, New Mexico to name a few. Such federally funded courses allow students to attend at no end cost to the student or their employer. As the concept of regionalization has been a buzzword for several years, the regional approach can also allow us to make the most of our training dollars in the form of partnerships with other hazmat teams, private-sector facilities, Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs), or hazmat associations. One such example is the outreach of the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, which has included either no- or low-cost training in technician-level topics.
As we make the final turn in our discussion, let us look at the third major roadblock to sustainability — barriers to the motivational level of our hazmat team and the dimming of the spark that keeps our team going. I will be the first to state that being a hazmat team member is not for everyone. As such, the ideal makeup of a hazmat team (when personnel and fiscal levels allow) is of personnel that volunteer to be members instead of being conscripted into service. The aforementioned concept increases the probability of team members exhibiting high motivational levels and being active participants in all facets of team functions. Another solution to motivational roadblocks is the cultivation of mentors within the team. We are all aware of the fact that we have both formal (by position) and informal (by experience and knowledge) leaders in the fire service. A competent mentor can come from either category (or even both categories). Mentors serve as role models to younger team members, leading by example while imparting knowledge and wisdom. We can bolster this concept by designating and training mentors, and by doing so we can ensure that the knowledge and experience base of our hazmat team is self-perpetuating.
Truly motivated hazmat team members usually like to ride hazmat calls and remain active, however this character trait can actually become a motivational roadblock if hazmat call volume is low. We can ensure that the motivational level of our team remains high in this aspect by designing our training to be as real-world as possible and by involving our team in realistic scenario-based training that replicates incident responses as closely as possible.
In conclusion, we must pro-actively ensure the sustainability of our hazmat team by being creative in our budgetary, training and motivational arenas. By thinking not about the here-and-now, but rather about the future of our team we can guarantee our ability to respond to any hazmat incident in a safe and competent manner. Team members will also show their gratitude in the forms of an increased love of the job; and higher levels of both job satisfaction and productivity.
As always, be safe out there and be sure to visit the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders website at www.nchazmat.com.
Glenn Clapp is Past President of the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders and is a Fire Training Commander (Special Operations) for the High Point Fire Department. He is a Technician-Level Hazmat Instructor, a Law Enforcement Hazmat Instructor, and is a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager and Certified Fire Protection Specialist.