Hazardous Materials team officer, are you ready for that next step?

CarolinaFireJournal - Capt. Mark J. Schmitt
Capt. Mark J. Schmitt EFO
07/15/2014 -

In the last issue we looked at some of the qualities needed to serve on a Hazardous Materials team. Now let’s fast forward a few years. You’ve been on the team for quite some time and you are asking yourself a question — do you have what it takes to be a Hazardous Materials team officer?

It is a question that most of us will come across at some point in our careers. After serving as a firefighter or engineer for a given amount of time, when do we make the move to the right front seat and become a company officer? There is no quick and easy answer to this question. Just because you meet the educational and length of service requirements for the position does not mean that you are necessarily ready to become a company officer. In most cases you will know when you are ready. In other cases, you will have several people, whose opinion you value, telling you that you need to be making the next step. While it can be a difficult decision to make, it is even more difficult for those seeking to make the move from Hazardous Materials Technician to Hazardous Materials Team Officer.

Unless your department is one of the few that has a dedicated Hazardous Materials team, chances are that you will be serving primarily as a company officer on a Suppression Company with the additional responsibilities of serving on a Hazardous Materials team. This means that you will be responsible for additional requirements such as hazardous materials training, hazardous materials equipment inventory and management, more apparatus (hazardous materials response units and trailers), etc. You may be required to handle these additional responsibilities without any additional pay. Even if you do receive supplemental pay, it may not always be worth it. You may be doing more work than your cohorts on the line companies without the extra pay. Are you ready, willing and able to accept this? If so, read on.

So what exactly does a Hazardous Materials team officer do? The Hazardous Materials team officer is responsible for supervising the activities of a fire company that forms part of the Hazardous Materials team in a prescribed battalion on an assigned shift. The Hazardous Materials team officer maintains the duties and responsibilities of a regular engine or ladder company officer in addition to their responsibilities pertaining to the Hazardous Materials team.

The Hazardous Materials team officer exercises direct supervision of company personnel in the performance of a wide variety of hazardous materials response duties including safety, decontamination, research, containment, confinement, atmospheric monitoring, reconnaissance and damage assessment on hazardous materials incidents.

Hazardous materials incidents may include accidents in transportation or fixed facilities, natural disasters or criminal or terrorist events. Duties and accountabilities include the supervision of hazardous materials training, maintenance of hazardous materials apparatus and equipment, pre-planning of hazardous materials occupancies and business community service and education.

The Hazardous Materials team officer is required to exercise initiative in meeting and resolving hazardous materials emergencies without direct supervision. Work is reviewed by superior officers through observations of performance of hazardous materials team equipment and personnel during training evolutions and incident responses as well as the review of reports and records. The Hazardous Materials team officer manages Hazardous Materials team operations at the shift level and reports on team activities to the proper personnel within the department’s chain of command. You are directly responsible for the operational readiness of all Hazardous Materials team apparatus, personnel and equipment.

What exactly are your principle responsibilities as a Hazardous Materials team officer? They are more wide ranging than you might think. You will be required to conduct Post Incident Analyses (PIAs) for all hazardous materials incidents. This not only makes sense from a training perspective, but it also a federal requirement as well. The PIA can help you identify weaknesses in training, equipment, communications, etc. How to rectify these issues will be discussed later.

If your department has a training division, they may handle your annual Hazardous Materials upgrade or refresher training. If not, it will fall to you and your crew to develop and deliver training topics as needed. If you are a qualified Hazardous Materials instructor, this task will be fairly simple and straightforward. If not, you may have some difficulty. You might want to think about getting qualified as a Hazardous Materials Operations or Technician Instructor. This will not only benefit you, but your department as well. Training responsibilities for the Hazardous Materials team officer are much the same as they are for a regular company officer with one exception.

You are also responsible for planning Hazardous Materials Technician and Specialist level training and drills for the Hazardous Materials team. These responsibilities also require you to maintain awareness of the latest advances and the “state-of-the-art” regarding the field of hazardous materials response and related fields. This training also enables you to maintain Hazardous Materials Technician or Specialist certifications for yourself and your team members as well. If you haven’t already, it would be a good idea for you to enroll in the Hazardous Materials Incident Management, Hazardous Materials Operating Site Practices and Special Operations Program Management courses at the National Fire Academy.

Training never stops and encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, including, but not limited to:

  • Providing initial training
  • Continuing education
  • Leadership
  • Mentoring and goals for new members of the Hazardous Materials team

Some training can be accomplished in-house, while other opportunities only exist in specialized off-site facilities. It is your job to assist members of the Hazardous Materials team in locating and selecting outside courses, seminars and conferences relating to the field of hazardous materials response.

Hazardous materials response is the most highly regulated emergency response field by the federal government. Therefore, it is imperative that the Hazardous Materials team officer maintains a working knowledge of federal, North Carolina and local laws, policies, regulations and standards pertaining to the field of hazardous materials response because there are differing regulations at all three levels. Knowledge of these laws will dictate when you are responsible for notifying North Carolina and federal officials and agencies of hazardous materials incidents as required. This is especially true when a chemical’s Reportable Quantity (RQ) has been exceeded during a release of any type.

Emergency response is one of the biggest responsibilities you will encounter once you take on a leadership role within your Hazardous Materials team. You may be required to respond to major natural or man-made hazardous materials incidents. These responsibilities will vary depending on the scope and complexity of the incident, including coordinating and leading hazardous materials incident operations such as safety and decontamination in an efficient and safe manner in addition to ensuring proper personal protective equipment is used by all personnel on hazardous materials incidents. It is also up to you to determine the possible behavior of hazardous materials and their containers by utilizing reference resources, training and previous experience. On larger incidents, one of your responsibilities may be assisting the Incident Commander (IC) in developing and completing all plans and paperwork required to properly document the hazardous materials incident.

While the first arriving responders should have detected and identified the presence of hazardous materials and started the process of establishing isolation zones based on the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG), it will be up to you to ensure that all products have been identified and that the establishment of Hot, Warm and Cold Zones based on the chemical involved, the amount present, time of day, local weather conditions, etc. has occurred. The size of these zones may change over the course of the incident depending on the success of your tactics or the complexity of the incident. Along with the establishment of these zones comes the responsibility of evaluating and recommending the need for protective actions such as evacuation or sheltering-in-place. The establishment of protective action zones and the decision to evacuate versus sheltering-in-place are all verified by ensuring that environmental monitoring is maintained at all times.

It will be up to you to supervise the off loading procedures when transferring hazardous materials from damaged containers. This includes ensuring that bonding and grounding has been addressed, verifying that the capacity of the nurse tanker is at least that of the damaged tanker, making sure that the pump and hoses are compatible with the chemicals in question in addition to verifying that the damaged tank is stable.

Weather plays an important part in the planning process for a hazardous materials incident, not just what the weather is doing now, but what will be happening five hours from now or 12 hours from now. You do not have to be a meteorologist to be a Hazardous Materials team officer, but you do have to ensure that current weather data and future weather forecasts are secured throughout a hazardous materials incident.

While most would consider it the most unpleasant part of a supervisor’s job, the administrative component of being a Hazardous Materials team officer is important. This requires you to maintain a thorough working knowledge of Hazardous Materials team apparatus and equipment. If someone has a question about the team or its apparatus and equipment, they are going to come to you. It is also your responsibility to ensure that all maintenance, testing and calibration activities are performed in a timely manner in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions. While this task may be delegated to someone on the team, it is up to you to make sure that it is completed.

In many departments, logistics will keep track of such things as hose and ladder tests, pump tests and turnout gear replacement schedules. On the Hazardous Materials team, it will be one of your jobs to maintain inventory control and maintenance procedures for Hazardous Materials team equipment. Inventory control is essential in hazardous materials because many items in your inventory have expiration dates and shelf lives. Some things will only last a year, while others will last for 10 years or more. Examples of these include Level A suits, sensors, gaskets and Draeger tubes. It is critical that these items be replaced on a regular basis. Finding out that something has expired at the moment you need it on an incident is inexcusable at best and negligent at worst. Paying careful attention to documentation here not only allows you to forecast when items will need to be replaced, but precise record keeping in terms of testing and maintenance will help you should you and your team be involved in some sort of litigation. As a Hazardous Materials Team officer, it may be up to you to recommend and specify items such as chemical protective clothing, monitoring equipment, training materials, spill and leak kits, etc. This will require you to do an extensive amount of research and homework.

If your department conducts pre-plans of structures, your workload may be increased by the responsibility of doing the pre-plans for hazardous materials locations throughout the jurisdiction, even if they are not within your first due territory. Extra time may be required out of your schedule for attending meetings for hazardous materials related issues at the jurisdictional, local and state levels as well as other duties as specifically assigned by your chain of command due to your unique skill set.

Finally, you are now considered what in legal circles would be considered a Subject Matter Expert in the field of hazardous materials. Would you feel comfortable with this new description? Other firefighters and officers will be calling you for answers. Members of your community will be told to call you with questions relating to hazardous materials. Chief officers will be making decisions based on your recommendations and expertise. Media reporters may be sent to talk to you if they are doing a story about or relating to hazardous materials. Are you up to the challenge?

If you are serving on a Hazardous Materials team and are thinking about participating in the next promotional process, don’t let the additional responsibilities scare you. Service on the team, especially if you’ve been a member for an extended period of time, has given you the tools you need to be successful as a Hazardous Materials team officer. In many cases, you just have to convince yourself that you are indeed ready.

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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