What it takes to join a Hazardous Materials Team

CarolinaFireJournal - Capt. Mark J. Schmitt
Capt. Mark J. Schmitt EFO
05/06/2014 -

It doesn’t take a chemical engineer, chemistry major or rocket scientist to be a Hazardous Materials Technician. What it does take is commitment, dedication and a willingness to learn.


Here is a question for all of you out there that are members of a Hazardous Materials Team or a Hazardous Materials Instructor — or both. How many times have you come across someone, either on the line or in one of your classes that says something like, “I’d like to join Hazmat but...”? Sound familiar? What have some of their reasons been? They’re no good at chemistry? They could never get into a Level A suit? They’re not smart enough? The list goes on and on. These are all valid concerns on their part, but they are all also wrong. That said, just what kind of qualities does it take to be a successful member of a Hazardous Materials Team?

The following are just some of the qualities, abilities and attributes that are required for membership on a Hazardous Materials Team.

Team Player Attitude
While the fire service is based on crews and teamwork, this is especially important on a Hazardous Materials Team. You simply can’t be on the Entry Team all the time getting your picture in the paper. There are too many other areas that need to be staffed, such as Decontamination, Research, Back-Up Team, Logistics, etc. No one can do it all on their own, regardless of what they think. The ideal Hazardous Materials Technician fits in with the rest of the team and follows the chain of command as opposed to freelancing and is ready, willing and able to get in, get dirty and get the job done, regardless of their assigned task.

Willingness To Learn
It is impossible to know everything about all facets of hazardous materials response. The field is simply too large and complex. Know-it-alls tend to know less than they think they do and may end up getting someone hurt, or worse. Don’t make this mistake and assume you know everything just because you just received your Hazardous Materials Technician certification. Find an area that you are particularly good in or are very interested in and make that area your specialty.

Science/Technical Background
You certainly don’t have to be a PhD in Organic Chemistry to be on a Hazardous Materials Team, but some knowledge of chemistry is desirable. This can be a coursework background in high school or college chemistry or a Chemistry of Hazardous Materials course. Lab experience certainly isn’t a requirement, but it helps to know what might happen if Chemical A mixes with Chemical B. In any event, some chemistry course work will be required in order for you to obtain your Hazardous Materials Technician certification.

A Hazardous Materials Team is a Special Team, like an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) or Dive Rescue Team. A person should be able to take pride in their unit and their equipment. If a firefighter can take care of a regular Engine Company and its equipment, why should we expect them to care about a Hazmat Unit and all of its equipment when the truck is usually bigger and the amount of equipment is so much larger? The answer is we can’t and they won’t, so they have no business being on a Hazardous Materials Team. This doesn’t imply that the Hazardous Materials Technician is an egotist, just someone who takes care of his or her unit and equipment.

The Hazardous Materials Team member must be dedicated to the team. This means going above and beyond just being a regular firefighter. In many departments, the Hazardous Materials Team is not a dedicated unit, but staffed by firefighters who respond to everyday emergencies as well. This additional duty may or may not result in additional compensation. This means training on hazardous materials topics in addition to fire and rescue topics. In order to maintain proficiency in all areas, this often means training at nights and on weekends. Only those dedicated to the program will go above and beyond in order to succeed.

Hazardous materials incidents don’t always fit the norm. What do we do if we have a leak that none of our kits can patch? What is the potential outcome when Plan A fails and Plan B isn’t working like it should? The ideal Hazardous Materials Technician doesn’t panic, but steps back, takes an analytical approach by looking at the entire incident and comes up with a solution by thinking outside of the box.

A Hazardous Materials Team is no place for a rookie just out of recruit school. A hazardous materials incident often requires split second decisions made under extreme pressure. While the same can be said about a fire ground, a Hazardous Materials Technician should gain this decision making experience on the fire ground and then transfer into a Hazardous Materials Team. The experience gained prior to joining the team provides discipline, sound judgment and maturity.

A tour on the team is not like a tour on a line company. It takes several years to gain the necessary training and skills to be a competent Hazardous Materials Technician. A tour on the Hazardous Materials Team should not be viewed as a means to promotion or for padding a resume. You should join the Hazardous Materials Team because you want to or because you have been recruited, not because you have to in order to satisfy your ascent up the chain of command. You should figure on a five-year commitment if you desire to become a well-rounded Hazardous Materials Technician.

The best Hazardous Materials Technicians are those that are self-motivated and disciplined. They don’t wait for a company officer or senior technician to begin a class on a piece of equipment and neither should you. You should be ready to go to the truck, pull equipment off the truck and familiarize yourself with it on your own. The same applies to coursework and other training. Take advantage of the opportunities that are out there in terms of classes, both online and practical.

Planning and Management Abilities
Many Hazardous Materials Technicians will progress and become Hazardous Materials Team Officers. You should be able to handle the planning and management of training and equipment programs as they relate to the Hazardous Materials Team. This can be much more involved than the planning and management for a line company given the increased training requirements and larger equipment caches.

Mechanical Skills
Hazardous materials response is not fire fighting. Mechanical aptitude is a definite asset due to the tools used — chlorine kits, vetter bags, etc. Can you work with tools? Are you good with your hands? Can you patch a leak totally by feel? Are you creative enough to design a solution using the tools at your disposal in cases where you don’t have “the right tool for the right job”?

Computer Skills
Can you navigate through a computer database in order to perform chemical research? Can you input the data in order to plot a plume and interpret the map that the program produces?

Calm, Cool and Collected
Hazardous Materials Teams, like other specialty teams, are called upon to handle the incidents that line companies cannot mitigate due to the special training and equipment that are required. These incidents are generally of a higher profile than a routine dwelling fire. For this reason, a Hazardous Materials Technician must be able to remain cool under pressure, maintain the ability to function and be able to direct non-technician personnel in assisting the Hazardous Materials Team in defensive and support functions.

Claustrophobia Concerns
A Hazardous Materials Technician may have to perform offensive functions in Level A Personal Protective Equipment, commonly referred to as the “moon suit.” A potential Hazardous Materials Technician needs to be made aware of this up front. Working in Level A is nothing like working in structural fire fighting gear or even Level B Personal Protective Equipment. Some people are able to work in Level A with no difficulties while others with few difficulties and others not at all. The potential Hazardous Materials Technician needs to recognize their limitations and be up front about them with the rest of the team. It is quite possible that through time, training and familiarization, some people will be able to work through their concerns and be able to be fully functional while wearing Level A Personal Protective Equipment.

Communications Skills
A Hazardous Materials Technician must be able to adequately portray what they have seen and done in the Hot Zone. This communication may be verbally, via radio or face to face. It may also be drawn in the form of a diagram of the area in question. The communication may also be in the form of hand signals in areas where noise prevents verbal communication or where the radio fails, forcing the use of alternative means of communication. Writing skills are also important in order to document the incident in after action and cost recovery reports. Remember, if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen. Verbal communication skills may also be valuable should the Hazardous Materials Technician be required to testify about their actions in a civil or criminal proceeding relating to the incident.

Jack of All Trades
It helps if the Hazardous Materials Technician knows a little about a lot of things as opposed to being an expert on just one. A working knowledge of chemistry, plumbing, electricity, carpentry, computers, etc. will provide a knowledge base to draw from during those times when you are confronted by a situation that wasn’t exactly covered in the last course you took.

These are just a few of the qualities that are preferred in a new Hazardous Materials Technician. It doesn’t take a chemical engineer, chemistry major or rocket scientist to be a Hazardous Materials Technician. What it does take is commitment, dedication and a willingness to learn. Don’t let the lack of a chemical background or a failed attempt at Chemistry 101 in college stop you from joining a Hazardous Materials Team. Go ahead and give it a try. It just may turn out to be one of the best moves you’ll ever make in your career.

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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