Community Risk Reduction in the Hazmat World

A concept that is paramount in today’s fire service community is that of community risk reduction, or CRR. image

Prior to engaging in a discussion of the subject, we should define what CRR actually is. CRR was defined by the Vision 20/20 Project as “The identification and prioritization of risks followed by the coordinated application of resources to minimize the probability or occurrence and/or the impact of unfortunate events.”

In practical terms, CRR consists of proactive measures undertaken to prevent incidents of all types from occurring and lessen their impacts if they do occur in an all-inclusive, all-hazards manner. CRR is so important in today’s fire service world that the Insurance Services Office (ISO) in their Public Protection Classification rating system that rates the property fire protection abilities of fire departments now awards up to 5.5 “extra credit” points for community risk reduction on their 100-point scale. With that being the case, we should introspectively look at why we are not usually becoming avid practitioners of CRR in the hazmat community.

When we discuss community risk reduction we often regress to the concepts of fire prevention and public fire safety education. While these concepts comprise elements of CRR, they are not the “total package.” Community risk reduction truly begins with a risk assessment of the hazards faced by your community. We then apply the concepts of engineering, enforcement, engagement, and education to reduce the risks that were discovered.

Hazmat Risk Assessment

If your department has a hazardous materials response team, your community evidently has — or had at one time — a risk for hazardous materials incidents to occur since the start-up of a hazmat team requires dedicated funding, specialized equipment and intense training. If your department has never conducted a risk assessment, the time is now to do so. Even if a risk assessment of your community has been conducted, the elements of risk are dynamic and a revision is most likely warranted.

Conducting a risk assessment in a hazmat sense will allow us to determine the actual hazards that exist, the probability of incidents occurring, and the resultant severity of incidents that may occur. The results of the risk assessment should then drive the focus of our hazmat team in terms of our equipment, training, response procedures and deployment of forces. Conducting the risk assessment should not be just an academic exercise, as it should involve our hazmat personnel on the line. Who knows the hazmat hazards presented better than the personnel that are out in their territories on a daily basis? In addition to evaluating our fixed facilities for hazardous material risks, we should also consider our risks in the transportation arena by conducting a thorough and competent commodity flow study to determine the types and quantities of hazardous materials being transported by all modes through our community.

Workplace Risk Assessment

The next element of community risk reduction that we will discuss is that of engineering.  In the world of occupational safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has developed a hierarchy of controls for the workplace. If a hazard to employees exists, we should first try to eliminate the hazard or substitute a less hazardous process. If that is not possible we should then proceed to engineering controls designed to reduce the hazard — such as ventilation systems, machine guarding, etc. — followed by administrative controls such as rotating personnel through the workstation and then the use of personal protective equipment.

The importance of engineering methods in CRR is just as important as utilizing engineering controls in the workplace. The construction of new facilities that may contain hazardous materials normally requires a plan review conducted jointly by the building inspection, fire prevention and planning departments — often with other departments involved in addition. Although fire prevention personnel are usually well versed on matters involving hazardous materials, why not get your hazmat team members involved whenever practical and possible? Doing so will allow the hazmat personnel to gain experience in an area that might benefit them in the future, and all involved will gain from their expertise and territorial knowledge. The same methodology can be utilized with hazmat facility expansion or renovation activities.

The enforcement of hazardous materials regulations and fire codes relating to same are also an important element of community risk reduction. If hazmat team personnel — or other departmental personnel for that matter — are in the territory conducting a pre-plan of an occupancy, they should be looking closely at hazardous materials that are present.  Some departments also use line personnel to conduct certain levels of fire inspections in which hazardous materials safety issues can be noticed and corrected. If questions arise, your inspections authority having jurisdiction can assist, hopefully also in consultation with hazmat team personnel.

Referrals are also an important component of the enforcement concept. All departmental personnel should be educated on the basic hazardous materials reporting regulations that exist. For example, a Tier II Referral Form can be developed so that personnel who notice that a facility has hazardous materials on site and whose employees may not know about the required annual Tier II chemical reporting can be advised of the requirement and a follow-up can be conducted by the appropriate emergency management agency to work cooperatively with the facility to determine if the filing of a Tier II Report is necessary and if so how to proceed.

Engagement is also a key element of community risk reduction. This engagement should occur between your hazmat team and fixed facilities, transportation companies and the public. The process of pre-planning occupancies to determine or update the facility layout, hazards involved, facility contacts, etc. should definitely involve your hazmat team when appropriate.

When I was serving as the emergency manager of a municipality for example, I would try to ensure that pre-planning efforts of hazardous materials occupancies were coordinated so that hazmat team involvement occurred. We have to remember that we do not respond just as a single first-in company to any significant incident, and such responses are truly a team effort. Engagement should also consist of training with our fixed hazmat facilities when appropriate, especially when those facilities have their own hazmat team. Such training is no different than mutual aid training on the fire suppression side of things. Even if a facility does not have their own hazmat team, they will oftentimes be more than willing to allow training at their facility and can often provide industry-specific knowledge that will benefit all involved.

External engagement with organizations such as your Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) is also imperative. LEPCs serve to conduct hazardous materials planning and outreach efforts, and involvement by not only a single representative of your department but also of hazmat team members is very beneficial. This can range from participation in regularly scheduled meetings to even having hazmat equipment on display if your LEPC has an annual conference or other outreach event.

CRR Education

The final component of CRR that we will discuss is that of education. This can take the form of internal education in which hazmat team members can assist with our required annual hazmat refresher training for all fire department personnel, or external education in which hazmat team personnel interact with and educate the public. In terms of external education, hazmat teams can partner with local high schools to show students the fun and practical applications of chemistry by conducting a short chemistry of hazmat session in which practical demonstrations are used. Such activities can also benefit departmental recruiting efforts.

If your jurisdiction hosts household hazardous materials collection days a few times per year, you can have your hazmat team be present for two reasons. The first is to be on standby if a resident brings something very hazardous or out of the ordinary to the event. The second is to be present to interact with the public and educate them in hazardous materials safety — such as the fact that usually the most dangerous hazardous materials threat in a residence is the area under the kitchen sink.

As we have discussed above, the practice of community risk reduction is an integral part of the fire service that should also be utilized in the hazmat world. By becoming true practitioners of CRR, we can be proactive in reducing the occurrences and impacts of the risks that we and our community face.

As always, stay safe out there and be sure to visit the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders website at

Glenn Clapp is a past president of the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders and has over 22 years of fire service and emergency management experience. He is currently an Improvement Specialist with the Industry Expansion Solutions Division of North Carolina State University and is a volunteer firefighter with the Fairview Fire Department. He is also a Technician-Level Hazmat Instructor, an Executive Fire Officer, a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager and a Certified Fire Protection Specialist.

Contact Us

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.