Using ATVs in hazardous materials response

CarolinaFireJournal - By Capt. Mark J. Schmitt
By Capt. Mark J. Schmitt EFO
01/23/2014 -

There are some people who would say that a fire department requesting an All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) for emergency response is nothing more than wasting money on a toy. “It’s only something the firefighters will use during hunting season,” they’ll say. Not so. As fire departments across the country are increasingly tasked with added responsibilities, we must look at new and possibly unorthodox ways of providing these new services. One way to do this is through the use of an ATV.

There are several ways that a hazardous materials team, in the performance of necessary job functions, can use an ATV. Use of an ATV also yields certain advantages as well. Listed below are the uses and advantages of utilizing an ATV.

(Author’s note: ATV is used here as a generic term. It may be applied to the basic “four-wheeler” or the bigger 4x6 or 6x6 varieties.)

Increased Time in the Hot Zone

The limiting factor in most hazardous materials incidents is the air supply carried by the entry team. Regardless of the make or model of your SCBA, you can only carry so much air. Supplied air through a tether is not an option due to the length of travel, PPE interface, tripping hazards, etc. 


A good recon will set the stage for how the rest of the incident is handled. One or two people riding on the ATV will be able to conduct a faster recon than the same two people walking.

Depending on the length of travel and travel time from the time that the entry team “goes on air” to the actual work area, safety factor and level of PPE being used, the actual work time in the hot zone may be as little at 10 to 15 minutes — or less. This may require multiple entries, even on a relatively simple task. By using an ATV to transport team members into the hot zone, we can increase their working time and decrease the number of entry teams needed, further reducing the risk of injury as well.


A technician’s mobility and vision are decreased as the level of personal protection increases. A long walk into the hot zone increases the possibility of slips, trips and falls. The ATV may also be used to ferry equipment back and forth into the hot zone as well. It is much easier — and safer — to have the ATV carry the load of a chlorine “C Kit” for example, into the hot zone than for two technicians to either drag it on a cart or carry it by hand. This also decreases the chance of the entry team being injured with a strain or sprain.

The ATV also serves as an excellent rescue vehicle for rapid intervention. The “two in/two out” rule should always be followed on a hazardous materials incident. If one or both entry team members go down, it is much faster — and safer — for the rescue team to ride to their assistance than to walk or try to run into the hot zone, especially if they have to cover a great distance. The injured entry team members can be brought out on the ATV itself, on a trailer towed by the ATV or dragged out on a SKED type device towed behind the ATV. Victims that need to be evacuated from the hot zone can be removed using the same methods. Using the ATV to transport victims — either fire department or civilian — decreases the chance that hurrying to evacuate the hot zone under a heavy load will injure the rescue team.

Incident Mitigation

The use of an ATV can serve to mitigate a hazardous materials incident sooner and more efficiently. One of the most important aspects of the hazardous materials incident is the recon. The recon tells the Incident Commander what product is leaking, what and where it is leaking from, the condition of the container or containers involved and how much product has leaked, just to name a few. A good recon will set the stage for how the rest of the incident is handled. One or two people riding on the ATV will be able to conduct a faster recon than the same two people walking. Using the ATV is also safer in this respect in that the recon team can quickly evacuate the hot zone should they get in too far or conditions begin to change rapidly. This also applies to the entry teams attempting to mitigate the problem as well.

An ATV can also be used to ferry tools, equipment, or personnel into or out of the hot zone, or victims out of the hot zone more efficiently. It is much easier for one person riding the ATV to ferry in tools, equipment and/or personnel than to have team members in full PPE making repeated trips and walking the same equipment in. This also applies to victim transport as well. Depending on the size of the patient, in can take from two to four people to remove the victim on a stretcher from the hot zone. Not only is this inefficient — especially when there are multiple victims to contend with — but also severely taxes your crews tasked with transporting the victims in this manner. In exercises conducted by the Greensboro Fire Department during a WMD/Mass Casualty exercise, one person driving a four-wheeler type ATV with a trailer was able to move three to four people at a time depending on their injuries.

Other Uses to Consider

The ATV is a tool whose uses are only limited by the imagination of those using it. During outdoor events such as concerts or any gatherings involving large amounts of people, the ATV can be used as a rapid intervention vehicle for EMS or small fires. Its off-road capabilities can be invaluable in a search and rescue operation in fields, woods or any other terrain where other vehicles cannot gain access. It can also be used in the technical rescue arena where it can be used in ferrying tools and equipment such as shoring, trench panels, etc. Do not overlook the ATV for uses on everyday fires either as it can be used to transport air bottles or rehab supplies throughout the fire ground.

Other Factors to Consider

Carefully research your options as to which type of ATV will work best for your department and jurisdiction, the costs involved and how you will pay for it. Not all grant programs will fund a purchase such as this. Will you be able to use a stock model, or will a custom package specially designed for fire suppression or EMS response work better for your department?

How will you transport the ATV to the incident?The Greensboro Fire Department’s hazardous materials team utilizes two ATVs. A Honda Rancher, single person four-wheeler is transported on the hazardous material team’s Decon 71 — mass casualty/mass decon tractor trailer — while a Polaris Ranger three person four wheeler with a cargo bed is carried in a gooseneck trailer that must be towed by a pick-up or other vehicle. The Ranger is part of the equipment cache of North Carolina Hazardous Materials Regional Response Team 5, which is fielded by Greensboro for North Carolina Emergency Management.

Safety first! All operators must either have previous experience with ATVs or be trained in their use. It would be beneficial if all of your personnel had the same ATV safety course. All operators must wear a helmet at all times. All tools and equipment must be properly tied down during transport into and out of the hot zone. Care must be taken, especially when transporting victims, regardless of their condition. When transporting victims or personnel, the maximum speed should be no more than 10 mph. Always read the manufacturer’s instruction manual.

Decontamination. If the ATV enters the hot zone, it must be decontaminated. This may seem like a large undertaking when we are used to only decontaminating personnel and equipment, but it is possible. If the Army can decontaminate a tank after it has been in a Nuclear/Biological/Chemical (NBC) atmosphere, then a fire department can certainly decontaminate a small ATV.

Preventive maintenance. The ATV is a machine, just like a fire truck, only smaller. How will the unit be maintained and who will maintain it? Will it be stored in a location where it will be checked on a regular basis?

Refresher training. The ATV is a tool, like many tools carried by a hazardous materials team. In order to gain proficiency, personnel must practice and train with the ATV on a regular basis. It does no good for the unit to sit in storage after the novelty has worn off.


ATVs can be a valuable tool in emergency services response. With practice, training and a little imagination, it can be a welcome tool in any fire department’s arsenal.

Mark Schmitt is Captain/Hazmat Specialist for the Greensboro Fire Department in Greensboro, N.C., and a veteran of over 20 years in the fire service. The majority of his career has been spent in special operations. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master of Public Administration in Emergency Management. Schmitt has taught numerous hazardous materials courses for the Greensboro Fire Department, local community colleges and the North Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal in addition to serving on several hazardous materials related committees at the local and state level.
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