SELLING Your Hazardous Materials Response Program

Severe hazardous materials emergencies — train derailments, highway accidents, significant leaks at fixed facilities, etc. — are relatively few and far between for most jurisdictions. They can be categorized as “low frequency/high risk” events. Outside of gas leaks and petroleum spills from transportation accidents, many jurisdictions have little or no experience in dealing with a major hazardous materials event. In tough budget times, it may be difficult to continue funding a team for incidents that may never occur, especially if there is another team that is available through mutual aid or a state regional team is available. What will you do if you’re tasked with selling your program to your command staff or your city council, county commission, etc.?


Risk Assessment

Your initial step is to conduct a risk assessment, which consists of four steps. The first step is to conduct a hazard analysis. What exactly are the hazards that your jurisdiction faces? Is there a rail line or a major transportation artery that runs through your jurisdiction? Are there fixed facilities that present a significant hazard potential? This analysis can be conducted by analyzing your jurisdiction’s Tier II reports and by requesting a Transportation Commodity Study through the Department of Transportation. This hazard analysis not only indicates what the chemical hazards are that you’re facing, but what quantities are involved and how they are stored and shipped as well.

Jurisdictional Review

The second step is to conduct a jurisdictional review. This review will measure the attitude towards your hazardous materials program, both within the department and without. Your department may be ready and willing to support your program, but will have to have the financial support of your jurisdiction. Your real battle may be gaining the support of those who control the purse strings during the budget approval process. Gauging interest from those inside the fire service is one thing. Gauging interest and gaining support from those in the political arena is another thing altogether.

Capability Assessment

The third step is to conduct a capability assessment. What are the capabilities of your personnel? This includes training, experience, certifications and specialties. What does your equipment inventory look like? Having the training to deal with a chlorine emergency means nothing without the Level A suits and chlorine kits to put that training to good use. Finally, what are your transportation abilities? Is your equipment carried in trailers or on apparatus? Can the trailers always be delivered to the scene? Do you have enough storage capacity for all of your equipment or do you need additional apparatus?

Vulnerability Analysis

The last step is to conduct a vulnerability analysis. You have already discovered what the hazards are, but how vulnerable is your community? Vulnerability can come in all shapes, sizes and colors and includes terrorism — both international and domestic — severe weather, number or transportation shipments in a given time frame, condition of infrastructure, safety records of chemical shippers and manufacturers, etc. There are many matrices available for your use when conducting your vulnerability assessment.

The Assessment Phase

Once all of this information has been collected, collated and analyzed, we can move on to the next area of selling your program, the assessment phase. A gap analysis will reveal the difference in where your program is now versus where you would like it to be in the future. Staffing requirements dictate what level of service you will be able to provide. Naturally, more tasks will be able to be accomplished with a larger team. The capabilities assessment will have a direct impact on your equipment requirements. What are you capable of now versus what do you want to be capable of in the future? What equipment will to need to get there or to just maintain your capabilities in the present?

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in selling your team is the budget/cost analysis. The post 9/11 days of unlimited grant money are long over. While there are still grant programs available, we can no longer adopt the “damn the costs, full speed ahead” mentality that the fire service had when the spending power was unlimited and not coming out of our budgets. Your budget and cost analysis will focus on areas such as staffing, equipment, training, annual operation costs and apparatus:

  • How much will it cost to staff the team we are selling?
  • How much will the equipment cost to enable your team to accomplish what you want it to do?
  • How much will it cost to send your people out for specialized training or bring those specialized instructors to your jurisdiction?
  • How much will calibration gas, sensors, suit testing, etc. cost?
  • Will additional apparatus or trailers be required? How much for brand new versus used?

As always, you must be able to offer alternatives. Plan A will always be your ultimate wish list, but it will also be the most expensive. That being said, make sure you have Plan B, Plan C and Plan D ready as viable alternatives. Can you reduce staffing requirements by adopting a smaller team or by embracing a regional concept? Can local industry provide some of the equipment or training? Can you modify existing apparatus as opposed to buying or leasing a new, custom apparatus? While it may seem that you are planning for the failure of Plan A, nothing could be further from the truth. What is more important, the success of your program as a whole or the adoption of a single plan to get there?

Now that the information has been gathered, processed, analyzed and collated and that alternative methods have been devised, it’s time to put a package together for your command staff or governing body. Do not use scare tactics! The “fund this program or babies will die” argument has grown stale over the years and the politicians are tired of hearing it. You do not have to secure the services of a public relations firm to build your presentation, nor do you have to have the skills of a Madison Avenue public relations executive. All you need is a little experience with Power Point, some public speaking ability and a firm belief in what you are about to propose.

Accurately describe what you found as far as what your capabilities and vulnerabilities are. Do not sugar coat, enhance or in any way, shape or form alter facts. Use the information you have found regarding call volume, hazard potential and vulnerabilities and base your arguments on cold, hard facts and not rhetoric or biases. When you provide your budget and costs analyses, give the actual numbers involved without rounding up or down.

You will have to build a Power Point presentation as part of your program. When doing this follow the KISS principle — Keep It Simple Stupid. DO NOT use animations or sound effects as they will not only detract from your program, but will also cause you to lose your audience rather quickly. Have a title for each slide and use illustrations as appropriate. These pictures should be of your equipment, personnel and jurisdiction. These will help to draw your audience in and will have a much greater impact than just using stock pictures found through an Internet search. You can deviate from this rule when you post pictures of any equipment or apparatus that you are proposing for purchase. In this case, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

After your presentation has been completed, practice, practice and PRACTICE some more. You should get to the point where you have your presentation memorized and use the slides only for back-up purposes. DO NOT, under ANY circumstances, read the slides during your presentation.

Be prepared to answer the following questions:

What will happen if this program is not funded?

Sell the positive aspects of your program. Tell how your program benefits all segments of your community — residential, commercial and industrial. Failure to implement, or keep, your program could result in increased response times and reliance on mutual aid. Current resources could be over-extended on unavailable on large incidents. If the worst-case scenario happens and your department is not prepared, that responsibility rests with those that make the decisions.

Why now?

You are selling your program. As such, it is important to present a sense of urgency, especially since public safety is involved. Failure to act could have an adverse effect on the community. Notice that this is different than the “babies will die” argument that used to be used in the past.

Why is the program you are proposing the best program?

Your answer to this question should be “short and sweet.” This is not the time for a long and drawn out answer. Include three benefits of your program in your answer. Discuss your alternative plans, explaining the positives and negatives, ultimately coming back to your primary plan and why the positives outweigh those of the other alternatives.

There will undoubtedly be challenges to selling your program and it is your job to know and anticipate these challenges in order to be better prepared to sell your program and to be able to provide more intelligent answers to any questions that are posed during your presentation. Funding will be one of your biggest issues. Be prepared to address this question fully before it is even asked.

While most firefighters do not consider themselves to be political, have no doubt you are about to enter a political arena. There may be departmental politics to consider in addition to those as work within your governing body. Internal influences — the rank and file of your agency — and external influences — the citizens we protect — may also present challenges to your ultimate goal. Anticipate them and seek answers ahead of time as opposed to being blind sided during your presentation.

Your first inclination when being tasked with selling your program may be that you are not up to the job. Put this out of your mine entirely. You can do this! Follow these steps, have some trusted advisors check your facts and figures and practice your presentation. While there are no guarantees in life, at least you will know that you gave it your best shot.

Mark Schmitt is a Captain/HazMat Specialist for the Greensboro Fire Department assigned to the Foam/ARFF Task Force and a veteran of 25 years in the fire service. The majority of his career has been spent in Special Operations. He holds a Master of Public Administration in Emergency Management and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. He 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 as a contract instructor with the National Fire Academy.

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