For those individuals that have little or no interest in hazardous materials, we have to make our presentations more interesting by addressing new topics and incorporating visuals — both graphics and video clips — into our presentations. Using the same old presentations on placards or the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) must also stop. Nothing will cause a student to shut down and lose interest faster than sitting in a classroom and seeing the same presentation that they have seen for the past several years in a row. This is a case where the instructor is the problem. It may be easy for you to keep using the same presentations year after year. If this is the case you are failing yourself and your students. It is your job to provide a quality program and quality instruction. That takes work, time, effort and preparation. It is what you agreed to provide when you signed the contract.
Let’s take a look at what you can do regarding topics for Hazardous Materials Continuing Education.
Back To Basics Approach
While we certainly don’t want to do the same presentation every year, it is a good idea to do a “Back to Basics” approach every few years. Take the ERG for example. There is absolutely no need to revisit the ERG every year. The ERG is revised every four years with the next edition slated for release in 2016. When the new edition is released, that is a perfect time to do an ERG class. Old chemicals are removed while new chemicals are added. Other changes are made as well. The ERG is something that most firefighters use rarely. Honing the skills occasionally will pay dividends when the big hazardous materials incident occurs.
When was the last time you spent some time looking at containers? Some of the containers we learned about in our first hazardous materials classes like the Motor Carrier (MC) 300 series (306, 307 and 312) highway containers haven’t been produced since 1993. They have been replaced with the Department of Transportation (DOT) 400 series (406, 407 and 412) highway containers. Do you know the difference? When was the last time you took a serious look at non-bulk containers like bags, carboys or cylinders? Are you aware of the proposed changes in general service rail cars for crude oil shipments? If not, these are all good topics for continuing education.
Get Out and Play
How many times did we hear our parents tell us to “go outside and play” when we were kids? The same thing can apply here. There is absolutely nothing that says continuing education must consist of “Death by Power Point.” A great deal can be learned by getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Below are a few examples.
ERG Exercise – Highway
For this exercise, find a place where you can park your apparatus and observe a heavily traveled road in your jurisdiction, the busier the better. For some of you, you may only have to park your apparatus on your front ramp. Each member of your crew takes a turn and identifies a placard on a passing vehicle. It is each firefighter’s responsibility to properly identify the placard, look it up in the ERG, select the appropriate Guide Page and determine if the product is Toxic by Inhalation or not. The crew then discusses the findings and passes the ERG to the next person.
This exercise can also be repeated by using the container silhouette. While not as specific as using a placard with a four digit United Nations Identification (UN ID) number, it is another tool in the tool box and may be the only information available to you when you first arrive on scene. Highway transportation also utilizes generic placards due to reduced quantities. These placards indicate the DOT Hazard Class only — Flammable Liquids, Corrosives, Explosives, etc. — rather than a specific chemical as indicated by the UN ID. This is also another means of looking up chemicals in the ERG.
ERG Exercise – Rail
For this exercise, find a place where you can park your apparatus and observe a heavily traveled railroad in your jurisdiction, the busier the better. Do not enter the railroad right-of-way! At best this is trespassing. At worst it is extremely dangerous as you may not be able to hear the train approaching. Each member of your crew takes a turn and identifies a placard on a passing rail car. It is each firefighter’s responsibility to properly identify the placard, look it up in the ERG, select the appropriate Guide Page and determine if the product is Toxic by Inhalation or not. The crew then discusses the findings and passes the ERG to the next person.
This exercise can also be repeated by using the container silhouette. While not as specific as using a placard with a four digit UN ID number, it is another tool in the tool box and may be the only information available to you when you first arrive on scene. In most cases, hazardous materials transported by the railroad are found in pressure cars (gases) or general service cars (liquids). Hazardous materials can also be found in box cars, hopper cars and gondolas to name a few. Rail transportation generally does not utilize generic placards due to the bulk quantities involved. While it is easy to focus on the hazardous materials in the train, the engine or engines at the front of the train cannot be overlooked. Each engine carries thousands of gallons of diesel fuel in addition to hundreds of gallons of antifreeze and motor oil.
Both of these exercises provide training on several levels. Firefighters not only get practice in using the ERG, but they also get a refresher in container identification. This training also serves as an informal Transportation Commodity Study. By observing what is being transported across your jurisdiction by road and rail, you get a better idea of the hazards you might face. There may be a big difference between the hazardous materials found in your community versus the hazardous materials transported through your community.
Decontamination is a Hazardous Materials Operations level skill. If a major hazardous materials incident occurs, there will not be enough Hazardous Materials technicians and specialists on scene to do decontamination. That job will fall to an engine company in most cases. When was the last time you practiced decontaminating someone? Have you practiced decontaminating a technician coming out of the Hot Zone versus a contaminated victim? What about a non-ambulatory victim? Have you considered how you will accomplish the decontamination of several hundred people? If not, now is the time to get out that decontamination trailer you have and practice!
Hazardous Materials Site Visits
Are there any occupancies within your jurisdiction that manufacture, store or sell hazardous materials? I would be willing to bet there are. Why not arrange a field trip for your company? This trip could easily be used to conduct a pre-plan or a pre-plan update. This trip would give you a much better idea of what materials are on site, what quantities are involved, how they are used and what manufacturing processes are involved. This knowledge will prove invaluable when an incident occurs. The trip could also turn into a training opportunity down the road. You would be surprised how many companies are out there that would absolutely love to have the fire service come in and conduct a drill on their facility with their own facility personnel. The relationships built during these non-emergency visits will pay untold dividends when and if an incident occurs there.
The world of hazardous materials is dynamic. It is always changing. What is going on at the local, state or national level that is new and exciting in terms of hazardous materials response? You cannot say “I don’t do HazMat!” If you ride a fire truck, you will respond to hazardous materials incidents. You may not be going into the Hot Zone with the Hazmat team, but you will be there nonetheless. That being said, what is going on that we could use as a topic for continuing education?
Before 9/11, very few people in the fire service gave much thought to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. This is now a fact of life for everyone in emergency services that will not go away during the course of our careers. The current state of affairs in the Middle East emphasizes this on a daily basis. Maybe now is the time to revisit the acronym CBRNE that we learned about many years ago. As First Responders, we will be tasked with responding to an event that involved chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive weapons. While the chances of responding to a nuclear detonation are extremely small, the odds of responding to an explosive such as a pipe bomb in your jurisdiction are much higher. Are you ready?
Chemical suicides and methamphetamine labs are both issues that started on the West Coast and gradually migrated across the country to North Carolina where we have seen incidents of both types. Were you aware of the fact that 80 percent of all chemical suicide incidents have involved injuries to first responders? Are you aware of the materials used in production of methamphetamine and how to recognize a lab before it’s too late? If not, here is another excellent opportunity for continuing education.
Two hot topics currently affecting the hazardous materials community are fracking and crude oil shipments. While we are not seeing large amounts of crude oil being shipped through North Carolina yet, fracking could very well be in our future. Is your jurisdiction one that could be used for a fracking operation? Do you know what fracking is? What chemicals are involved? What you would do if an incident occurred at a fracking facility in your community? Even though North Carolina isn’t seeing a great deal of crude oil shipments at the moment, our state does see a tremendous amount of rail traffic on a daily basis through Norfolk Southern and CSX Railroads. North Carolina has seen its share of rail emergencies. Are you ready? If not, here is another continuing education topic for your consideration.
Hazardous Materials continuing education does NOT have to be boring. It can be as timely, interesting and attention grabbing as any topic in the fire service. It’s our job as training officers and Hazardous Materials instructors to make this happen. We owe it to our departments, our students, our fellow first responders and ourselves. Do your research, ask questions and find out what your department wants and needs. Then provide that quality program that we all know you can!
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.