The first thing prospective hazmat technicians should do prior to beginning the transition described above is to rid themselves of any preconceived notions regarding the upcoming process. Many personnel have heard “horror stories” from others of how the process can be difficult and how one needs a background in chemistry to succeed. In actuality, while the certification process is rigorous, it is attainable given an adequate amount of effort exhibited by the prospective technician. A background in chemistry may also help, but is not essential. If the prospective technician keeps an open mind regarding the process, he or she will have a greater probability of success and a better potential for actually having fun in the process.
The State of North Carolina has transitioned to a certification model in which successful completion of the National Fire Academy (or equivalent) Chemistry of Hazardous Materials course is first in the sequence of steps in gaining certification as a hazmat technician (e.g. the chemistry course serves as a prerequisite for the Hazmat Technician course). While the Chemistry of Hazmat course has been a requirement for many years in North Carolina and in the past could be taken following the Hazmat Technician course, I personally believe that completing chemistry before the technician course streamlines the process, as the knowledge gained during the completion of the former is definitely beneficial during the latter. Chemistry of Hazmat can either be completed in a semester setting at a community college or in a two-week, 80-hour format in various offerings throughout the state. While completion of high school or even college chemistry can aid the student in successful completion of the course, such prior coursework is not mandatory as the Chemistry of Hazmat course focuses on just that — hazardous materials. The course is not centered on laboratory settings and topics such as performing stoichiometric equations to determine the yield of reactions, but rather is centered around areas of chemistry that we may use in the field and will lend to our credibility when interfacing with outside professionals on incidents.
The first item to remember regarding the course is that it is not a course in which one can passively attend just by sitting in class for two weeks without displaying any effort in studying the material in the evenings, and then have any hope of a successful outcome. The success of the prospective hazmat technician is predicated on “hitting the books” every evening after class. The use of study groups is also beneficial for many. A large portion of the course centers on the naming conventions of organic and inorganic chemicals. Many instructors will guide the student in the sequential preparation of a memory aid sheet for such naming conventions that is expanded during each day of class. Do not wait to begin studying the guide for several days, as the compounding of information can quickly become overwhelming if even one day of studying is skipped. The memory aid sheet is just that — an efficient tool to be used in the memorization of chemical naming conventions, enabling the student to easily recall the information from memory on final exam day.
You might also ask what other topics are covered in the Chemistry of Hazmat class. The course also touches on the periodic table and related trends, atomic theory, the hazardous properties of families of chemicals, and research as related to hazardous materials incidents. Although many prospective technicians initially only see the course as two weeks of in-classroom work, the student and class as a whole can make the endeavor either enjoyable or trying by the manner of their attitudes and participation in the class. While some have questioned the need for a Chemistry of Hazmat course in the requirements for hazmat technician certification, completion of the class arms the student with more confidence on the incident scene and the knowledge that serves as the keystone of credibility when interfacing with professionals in the field.
Following successful completion of the Chemistry of Hazmat class, the prospective technician then enrolls in a Hazmat Technician course approved by the North Carolina Office of State Fire Marshal. The technician class is a two-week course that is offered several times throughout the year at various host sites throughout the state. Although the two-week timeframe implies 80 contact hours of instruction, the student will actually spend more than 80 contact hours in the class, as there are multiple class days that stretch beyond five o’clock in the afternoon.
One of the most important items for the hazmat technician class student to remember is not to become overwhelmed during the first few days of class. On the first class day, a textbook that is several inches thick greets students. When I am teaching a Hazmat Technician course, I always state that we will cover all of the subjects in the book during the two weeks of class — usually accompanied by groans, the rolling of eyes, and muffled foul language from the audience. While this is true, I also state that things will continue to be a little hazy until approximately midway through the second week of class, when things will come together and “click” for the student. While many believe that this is not true, I have had a great number of students state during the second week that just that has happened.
The Hazmat Technician course is also like the Chemistry of Hazmat course in that students should not expect to throw their books and thoughts in a corner at the end of each class day and expect a successful outcome. The tempo of the class is fast-paced, starting on the first class day with Standards and Regulations and progressing through topics such as Incident Management, Victim Management, Product Control, Research, Personal Protective Equipment, Air Monitoring, and many more. While the first few days find the student in the classroom for the majority of that time, each day brings about more and more “hands on” practical time with activities such as the application of Chlorine A, B, and C Kits; Suit Confidence, and related items. Interspersed throughout the class are daily quizzes, practical evaluations, and a mid-term and final exam. In addition, two items occur during the second week that I believe bring everything together for the student in a practical sense — two emergency response exercises involving two differing settings. In the exercises, class participants must utilize knowledge and skills learned in each topic encountered in the class and must apply the knowledge in a real-world setting.
As the final exam for the Hazmat Technician class draws near, students should remember one major point — their learning in the field of hazardous materials is not ending, but is just beginning. Although participants will be certified Hazmat Technicians upon completion of the Hazmat Technician class (of course preceded by the Chemistry of Hazmat course), the learning curve is just beginning. I have been a hazmat technician for 11 years now, and I learn something new about hazmat response throughout each duty day and on each incident. While I do not want to make the final exam of the Hazmat Technician course seem overly daunting, it is an exam that prepares the new hazmat technician for the “real world” by demonstrating that they do not know all there is to know about hazmat at that point of their career. The new technician should also go back to the team with the expectation of broadening his or her knowledge through continued training, education, and mentoring by experienced veterans.
In summation, becoming a hazardous materials technician is not an insurmountable task that only a few accomplish. While stating just that, I will also state that the prospective hazmat technician should begin their journey of being “called up to the show” with an open mind and the notion that effort on their part will be required to ensure a successful outcome. It is hoped that this discussion will also allow the prospective technician to enter into the process as well informed as possible and ready to “hit the ground running.” For such personnel, I wish you nothing but success in the field of hazmat; and a long, safe and rewarding hazmat career. As always, be safe out there and be sure to visit the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders website at www.nchazmat.com