Very few of you reading this article joined the fire department to respond to hazardous materials incidents. Most members of Hazardous Materials Teams, this author included, didn’t join the fire department to respond to hazardous materials emergencies either. Yet all of us in emergency services — including our brothers and sisters in law enforcement and EMS — have some sort of hazardous materials certification? Why is that and just what does that certification mean?
There are four basic hazardous materials certifications recognized by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The NFPA standards apply to firefighters while the OSHA standards apply to all employees that may be called upon to come into contact with hazardous materials as part of their required duties. The OSHA standards are codified in the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) guidelines found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 1910.120. All emergency services employees — fire department, law enforcement and emergency medical services — must comply with HAZWOPER guidelines. Subsection (q) Emergency Response governs our operations on emergency scenes. For the sake of protection, volunteers are considered as “employees” since they are acting under the auspices of a county or other municipality.
NFPA and OSHA each recognize the following hazardous materials certifications: Awareness, Operations, Technician and Specialist. OSHA also recognizes a fifth certification, Hazardous Materials Incident Commander.
Hazardous Materials Awareness level responders are the least trained. This level of training has nothing to do with the intelligence level of the responder but everything to do with their level of responsibility and their job description. Hazardous materials awareness training generally consists of six to eight hours of classroom instruction. Awareness level responders are trained to recognize a potential hazardous materials incident, protect themselves, call for trained personnel and secure the area. Awareness level responders take protective actions. At one time, many fire departments trained their personnel to this level only. Currently most EMS and law enforcement personnel are trained to this level.
Hazardous Materials Operations level responders receive more training. Hazardous materials operations training generally consists of approximately 40 hours of classroom and practical skills training. Operations level responders are trained in all aspects of hazardous materials awareness but receive additional training in recognizing a potential incident, isolating the area and taking defensive actions without touching the product. The actions may include evacuation, sheltering in place, applying foam, diking and damming or decontamination. Most fire departments now train their personnel to this level as a minimum as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the increased threat level that we now must contend with.
Hazardous Materials Technician level responders are typically those that serve on Hazardous Materials Teams. Hazardous Materials Technicians rely on their initial hazardous materials operations level training to provide the basis for a more advanced hazardous materials curriculum. Requirements vary for this certification from state to state, but here in North Carolina it takes a fair amount of work. Potential Hazardous Materials Technicians must attend the Chemistry of Hazardous Materials course either through their local community college or at the National Fire Academy. This course is a prerequisite for the Hazardous Materials Technician course offered by the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Each of these classes is an intensive, two-week endeavor. At least 12 hours of Incident Command System (ICS) training is also required in order to be certified as a Hazardous Materials Technician here in North Carolina.
Hazardous Materials Technicians enter heavily contaminated areas using the highest levels of protection, often a totally encapsulating Level A garment. Hazardous Materials Technicians take offensive actions where they routinely come into direct contact with the hazardous material. Technicians are well schooled in rail, highway and fixed facility emergencies in addition to regulations and standards, air monitoring, plugging and patching and weapons of mass destruction. Technician level personnel are generally jacks of all trades when it comes to hazardous materials, but often specialize in a particular area of interest.
Hazardous Materials Specialist level responders are exactly what the name implies. They receive a minimum of an extra 24 hours of training in a particular field of study in accordance with NFPA standards. The recognized fields of study vary from state to state, as do the required number of hours for certification. North Carolina recognizes Highway Emergency and Rail Response Specialists (both 40 hour courses) in addition to a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Specialist that is a little more difficult to obtain. Candidates desiring certification as a WMD Specialist must obtain at least 100 hours in three different areas such as explosives, chemical weapons, biological weapons or radiation.
While not recognized by the NFPA, OSHA does recognize the Hazardous Materials Incident Commander. The Hazardous Materials Incident Commander will assume command of a hazardous materials incident beyond the operations level and should have at least operations level training as well as additional training specific to commanding a hazardous materials incident. This training could consist of the Hazardous Materials Incident Management course sponsored by the NFA or any variety of classes offered at hazardous materials related conferences across the country.
All levels of hazardous materials certification require some sort of continuing education. How many hours are required will depend on your level of certification and the requirements of your department. Some departments require their operations level personnel to receive anywhere from three to eight hours of continuing education a year. Command level personnel may be required to attend an eight hour Hazardous Materials Command Refresher program. Technician level personnel are required by North Carolina to obtain at least 24 hours of continuing education a year. This number doubles to 48 hours a year if the technician is a member of one of the seven Hazardous Materials Regional Response Teams.
If you’re wondering how many hours of continuing education you need, simply ask yourself a question about your current level of certification. What’s in your wallet?