1. Slow is Fast in Hazmat
As emergency responders, we routinely make split-second decisions that could mean the difference between life and death and normally perform our duties at a high operational tempo. As an example, we all know that a fire grows at an exponential rate, so as firefighters our instinct when arriving at a structure fire is usually to deploy an attack line as quickly as possible and perform a quick knockdown of the fire. In doing so, we sometimes miss the “big picture” of what is really occurring. The same holds true in hazmat response, only in a greater magnitude. Unlike a structure fire where we can often see our enemy — fire, smoke, structural conditions — in hazmat our enemy is often either unseen or barely discernible. The products we are dealing with can easily cause severe injury or death to responders, and as such we need to slow down and carefully evaluate the situation prior to making entry. We also need to ensure that prior to entry into the hot zone, we have decontamination of some sort set up, our product or products ideally identified, a Backup Group in place and dressed out, and other key elements completed. I like to think of this as working carefully, but with a purpose.
2. Know Your Product
We should ideally know our product or products that we are dealing with in hazmat response. That means not only knowing the identity of the product, but also its properties, toxicological hazards and levels of concern; how the product impacts our personal protective equipment (PPE), specifics as to how our air monitoring equipment will “read” the product (e.g. relative response information), and how the product may react with other products. Although the research function is one of the most oftentimes overlooked duties on the hazmat scene, the establishment of a sound Research Group is one of the key elements to the successful outcome of a hazmat incident. Research Group personnel also need to be cognizant of certain cues that assist in the detective-like process of either discovering the identity of the product or products we are dealing with or at least narrowing down our possibilities by ruling out what we are not dealing with.
3. Know Your PPE
Our PPE is truly our lifeline, protecting us from the hazardous characteristics of the products we may be exposed to. Responders need to remember that when we speak of “PPE” we should not think solely of our suits, but also of our boots, gloves and respiratory protective equipment. Due to the fact that our suits, boots, and gloves are not totally impervious to hazardous materials, we need to ideally be able to know the breakthrough times and related compatibility information for the product or products our PPE may be exposed to so that the proper PPE can be selected, utilized and trusted. In terms of respiratory protective equipment, fire service personnel usually gravitate toward self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) at hazmat scenes due to their availability and our daily exposure to such equipment. Responders should be aware, however, that we may have other options for respiratory protection (e.g. air purifying respirators [APRs], powered air purifying respirators [PAPRs], etc.) as long as the equipment is available and we know certain information regarding the product or products we may be encountering, such as the product concentration, toxicological levels of concern, etc.
4. Trust Your Meter
As we often deal with products of which their presence is not easily discernible by our usual senses, or should not be discerned by certain senses, it is imperative on the hazmat scene that we trust our meters — or more properly termed, our detection equipment — and engage in the proper use of same. We need to have confidence in our detection equipment, whether it is a toxicological sensor, combustible gas indicator, pH paper or detection equipment; photoionization detector (PID), colorimetric tube or other detection equipment. This confidence precedes trust, which is essential when entering the hot zone.
5. To Trust Your Meter, You Have to Know Your Meter
With the aforementioned having been stated, we have to know our meter, or detection equipment, to trust it. Such knowledge includes the fact that the equipment is calibrated, well maintained, and suited to the environment presented. Personnel need to be cognizant of any cross-sensitivities and limitations of the equipment, as well as the all-important concept of relative response with combustible gas indicators and PIDs. In the latter element, we cannot discern the flammability or concentration of our product or products unless we know the proper correction factor by which to multiply the meter units that are displayed. In addition, air monitoring equipment needs to be ideally bump tested prior to each use by flowing known concentrations of calibration gas through the sensors and ensuring that the “numbers match up,” or at a minimum fresh air calibrated in which the sensors are “zeroed out” in a clean air environment.
6. Try the Simplest Things First
In the structural fire-fighting realm of forcible entry, our cardinal rule is “try before you pry.” Nothing is more embarrassing than forcibly opening a door to access a structure fire, only to have personnel exiting the structure after the fire is extinguished try the door hardware to find it was not locked in the first place. We all know that you will not hear about that one back at the station! The same concept rings true in hazmat response. While we all like to use our “toys” and high-tech equipment, we need to remember to try the simplest things first, such as closing a valve, activating a remote shutoff, or even rotating a container so that the container compromise is facing upwards. Such actions may reduce our exposure to hazards and lead to an efficient resolution to the incident.
7. Trust Your Gut
This principle can simply be thought of as if something does not seem right on the hazmat scene, it probably is not. Although this principle is not clearly as tangible as some of the others we have discussed or will be discussing, we develop a sense of situational awareness as we progress through our hazmat career. If we are in the hot zone and the hair on the back of our neck starts standing up, we need to heed our feelings by at least examining why our “gut feeling” is occurring.
8. Protect the Public
Our safety is always paramount; since if we are taken “out of the action” we are not doing any good for anyone. With that being stated, however, we need to also remember that we are sworn to protect the public from harm during hazmat response. Such protection may consist of evacuating the public from harm’s way or sheltering them in place until the hazard subsides. We should back up such decisions with both empirical data and knowledge gained through our experience.
9. Time Spent Training is an Investment
We should “train like we fight and fight like we train” in hazmat response. Training should not be viewed as an activity that takes up valuable time on our “plates” that are already full, but rather as an investment that pays off huge dividends in safety and efficiency on the hazmat scene. As both a hazmat instructor and a student in training classes, I realize that it is not always possible to make hazmat training interesting and engaging. As instructors, we should make every effort to ensure our training is as engaging and relevant as possible.
10. Share Your Knowledge
It is often stated that “knowledge is power,” however the withholding of knowledge or information on the hazmat scene or in passing knowledge on to other personnel during training is counterproductive at the least and can even be fatal. We should always strive to “bring something back” to our own team when returning from any outside training experience and to pass knowledge gained in both academic and experiential settings to those advancing through their hazmat career — those to whom we pass the torch as we progress through our own careers.
It is my hope that the preceding points of reference can serve as easily remembered items that will be of positive use in operating at and preparing for hazmat responses. In my opinion, it is imperative to regularly take such an introspective look at our discipline by summarizing our key tenets, thereby reinforcing the basics of our profession. I can honestly say that in preparing the above discussion, I have personally faced and reinforced key topical points that I may not have addressed as often or in as much detail as I should have in the past. As always, stay 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.