In any occupational pursuit, there comes a time at which we are at risk of succumbing to the status quo and possibly just “riding things out.” Such a time lies diametrically at the opposite end of the spectrum from events such as your first day on shift at the fire station when you were excited to be through with recruit training, out on “the line” fighting fires and saving lives; or when you completed Hazmat Technician training and were eagerly awaiting to tackle any hazmat incident that occurred.
Truth be told, at that point and time during our careers not many of us really knew what we did not know. We can, however, gain back that feeling of excitement about what we do as hazmat responders and ensure that we are contributing members of our hazmat teams by engaging in professional development activities.
You may next ask, “What are the available hazmat professional development activities out there?” Even if you are new to the world of Technician-level hazmat response as a newly-minted Hazmat Technician you may ask “What next?” The good news is that many hazmat professional development activities are offered at no cost and can greatly enhance your hazmat knowledge. One such free professional development activity is the National Fire Academy’s Hazardous Materials Operating Site Practices class. Once accepted, students are able to attend the 10-day class at the NFA with the only cost being your meal ticket at the dining hall. In a nutshell, the Operating Site Practices class builds upon one’s Technician-level training by synthesizing concepts from both Hazmat Technician and Chemistry of Hazmat topical areas and applying them to risk-based decision-making activities. Like most — if not all — NFA classes, attendees learn just as much outside of class as they do in class by networking with other attendees and instructors. Other hazmat-related courses are offered at the NFA, including Hazardous Materials Incident Management and Advanced Life Support Response to Hazardous Materials Incidents.
As long as we are discussing hazmat professional development activities, why not earn an additional certification while training? If you are already a certified Hazmat Technician, you can pursue Hazmat Specialist certification in either rail car or highway transportation specialties. The usual venue for doing so is at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) in Pueblo, Colorado. The Specialist courses in each discipline are five days in length and the course delivery and practical exercises have been honed over many years to a high level of excellence. The best news regarding these courses is that several offerings each year are funded by the Department of Homeland Security and are completely free (including travel and lodging) to students that are accepted. In North Carolina, personnel who have completed either of the courses at SERTC then submit their course certificate and resume to the Office of the State Fire Marshal for certification as a Hazmat Specialist. What could be better than gaining knowledge, experience and certification all at once for free?
An additional endeavor is certification as an OSHA Hazmat Incident Commander. Although such training is not free of charge, it does signify that personnel are competent in the skills needed to manage a hazmat incident. The main prerequisite of OSHA Incident Commander training is hazmat certification at the Operations level. Such training is offered online by many training companies and is usually eight hours in length, accompanied by a test to prove competency in the areas covered.
Although not certification classes per se, there are several “Federal” hazmat or hazmat-related courses offered at various locations throughout the U.S. that are free to attendees. These offerings include the Initial Response to Terrorist Bombing course at the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center in Socorro, New Mexico; Radiological Monitoring courses at the Center for Radiological Nuclear Training at the Nevada National Security Site; and a variety of hazmat course offerings at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Alabama (including training in which participants perform evolutions in a live-agent environment). Hazmat personnel should take advantage of these professional development activities, as they are truly top-notch in content and delivery; and involve no incurrence of costs to the attendee’s agency.
Although we have only discussed “external” professional development activities up to this point, we should also look introspectively to provide in-house hazmat professional development activities that not only will help rekindle our own professional development “fire” but also that of others. Such internal activities can be as simple as using any available opportunity to conduct hazmat training — which can range from a single company training on a specific piece of equipment to an entire hazmat team conducting chemistry of hazmat refresher training — to training with and even participating in response exercises with local industry partners. Internal professional development activities such as those discussed above can serve to boost team morale and collective knowledge; and also can be used as a time for team veterans to pass their knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm for hazardous materials response to newer team members. Local industries are also usually more than happy to conduct joint training and exercises with hazmat personnel, which results in positive response relationships when the tones go off and we respond to an actual incident.
Transportation companies — such as railroads and trucking companies — are also sources of professional development activities. Individual railroads — or the industry collectively through the TRANSCAER program — can collaborate with local hazmat responders in activities ranging from a railyard visit and training to a regional training session. Trucking companies will most often do likewise, as in my experience partnering with a local trucking company for hands-on training involving highway transportation tank trailers for a hazmat team in which trucking company personnel also assisted with the delivery of training. Such an arrangement allows hazmat personnel to learn from the industry experts items that we may overlook in the hazmat response world.
The final areas of hazmat professional development we will discuss are formal educational classes and nationally-recognized certifications. Although in North Carolina completion of the Chemistry of hazmat class is a component of Hazmat Technician certification, we should not overlook the possibility of taking college courses in chemistry and the management of hazardous materials. Such coursework allows us to competently interact with industry professionals and be more knowledgeable in our hazmat pursuits. The completion of nationally recognized certifications — such as the Certified Hazardous Materials Manager certification through the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management — not only builds our professional credibility, but also prepares us for life after the fire service and hazmat response — and sadly, that day does come — by increasing our opportunities for meaningful second careers.
In conclusion, the old adage that “when we stop learning, we stop growing,” is very much true. We should always endeavor to increase our knowledge and competency in the hazmat world no matter where we fall on the hazmat career continuum. As we have learned, such opportunities do not have to break our budgets or be overly complex; and can actually be very fun and rewarding. As always, stay safe out there and be sure to visit the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders website at www.nchazmat.com.