By Glenn Clapp CSP, EFO, CHMM, CFPS
Imagine that you are an emergency responder that is considering becoming a Hazmat Technician. The first thought in your mind is probably, “Why in the world am I even thinking about doing that?” In all honesty, that is a question that you should answer prior to embarking on the greatest leap in the hazmat world – That of progressing from a responder certified at the Operations Level to a Hazmat Technician. Making the aforementioned move can be one of the most rewarding (and challenging) progressions in your emergency services career as you transition from a defensive action-based response model to an offensive action-based model (e.g., being able to enter the Hot Zone to plug, patch, or otherwise mitigate leaks, spills, and releases). As such, the decision to become a Technician should not be taken lightly.
Simple logic lets us determine that there are generally two means by which an emergency responder begins their journey to becoming a Technician. Either the responder expresses a desire to make the leap, or they are assigned to a hazmat team by administration or other supervisors. No matter which method of selection to the ranks of the Technician community occurs, the prospective Technician should spend some time in introspective thought as to their physical and mental readiness to take on the challenge. Prospective Hazmat Technicians usually concentrate on the mental aspect of the leap; however, the physical aspects of functioning as a Technician should not be overlooked. In an effort to be realistic while not sounding pessimistic, wearing hazmat chemical protective clothing and respiratory protection on a hot day can be taxing even to those who are in great shape. Your peripheral vision is often limited, your face shield in vapor protective suits will fog over, and your mobility and dexterity will be limited. In terms of mental readiness, the prospective Technician should ensure that they are not claustrophobic, as when personnel are zipped into a fully encapsulated vapor protective suit, they are just that—fully encapsulated—and are not averse to the “academic” portion of Hazmat Technician training and on-scene operations. You are probably now wondering why anyone would become a Hazmat Technician after the preceding “pep talk.” The truth is those personnel that can rise to the occasion to meet the physical and mental challenges presented as a Hazmat Technician will be able to save lives and property by entering into an unforgiving environment that few emergency response personnel can safely and competently enter.
Now that you have ensured yourself that you are up to the challenges of becoming a Hazmat Technician, it is time to get to work. The examples that follow are representative of the process in North Carolina; therefore, if you are in another state, the details may differ somewhat. Since you are already certified in the Hazmat Operations Level as a prerequisite to becoming certified as a Firefighter, you will next need to register for and attend the Chemistry of Hazardous Materials (Chemistry of Hazmat) class. The class is either completed in a two-week session lasting eighty hours or over a college semester at a community college. During this period of time, participants will cover the salient points of organic and inorganic chemistry relevant to hazardous materials response, such as chemical naming conventions, chemical reactivity, and the physical and chemical properties of hazardous materials. Sometimes comments arise as to why prospective Technicians should complete the Chemistry of Hazmat class. The rationale is that in the field, Hazmat Technicians may be required to interface with chemists, chemical engineers, and process managers that have an extensive chemistry background. Without having completed the Chemistry of Hazmat class, responders would not be able to “speak their language” and would lose the credibility that is so difficult to earn and so easy to lose. All-in-all, the Chemistry of Hazmat class is not something to dread but rather is a valuable learning experience that builds a basic foundation for the aspiring Technician to build upon.
The next step in the process of becoming a Hazmat Technician is the successful completion of the eighty-eight-hour Hazmat Technician course offered through the North Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal. Unlike in the past, when prospective technicians could complete the Chemistry of Hazmat and Technician courses in any order, prospective Technicians must now complete the Chemistry of Hazmat course first as a prerequisite that is required to even start the Technician class. The Technician class is an intense two-week journey that encompasses both academic and practical instruction. When teaching the Technician class in past years, we would place a looseleaf binder textbook on the desk of each participant that was approximately three inches thick and would promptly inform them that we would cover the entire textbook in the two-week timeframe. For those that did not run out of the room screaming (just kidding), we would do just that. We would also inform them, however, that although the class material would often seem overwhelming at first, it would all come together and “click” in their heads approximately halfway through the second week of the class. In all my years of teaching, I have never had anyone disagree with that statement at the end of the class.
The first two to three days of the Technician class are in-classroom building blocks that may be highly reminiscent of the Chemistry of Hazmat class for participants. Topics such as hazmat regulations, the HAZWOPER Standard, and recognition and identification are covered. Following those introductory topics, things really get interesting as hands-on practical evolutions are interspersed with the classroom sessions. The practical evolutions range from air monitoring exercises to hazmat chemical protective ensemble dress-outs to product control techniques such as applying Chlorine C Kits to mitigate rail car releases. All of the academic and practical studies then culminate at the end of the second week with realistic response exercises that pull everything from the class together. A final written exam then rounds out the class. One important point for participants to remember at the conclusion of the process is that you are then just beginning your learning process as a Hazmat Technician. Your knowledge base is there; however, only experience in the field and continual training will continue your learning process.
Once new Technicians return home to their departments and hazmat teams, the learning of team-specific procedures and equipment begins. We also have to carefully guard against complacency. It is easy to sit back at that time and only do a minimal amount of training at the Hazmat Technician level. Let’s face reality – even busy hazmat teams are not bombarded with significant hazmat incidents every day. If we do not use the hard-earned knowledge and skills learned in the process of becoming a Hazmat Technician through appropriate training, we are sure to lose them. New Technicians should not only participate in regularly scheduled training opportunities but should also actively seek out training opportunities. These opportunities can range from simply speaking with your company officer to arranging for some company-level hazmat training to seeking nationally recognized training opportunities such as applying for Highway or Railcar Transportation Specialist training at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. As is oftentimes stated, if you ever stop learning in the hazmat world, it is probably the time to “hang it up.” Just like our fire service career, our hazmat career should be a process of continual learning and growth.
In summation, becoming a Hazmat Technician is a rewarding and fulfilling experience that enables us to make a difference in an environment few people dare to venture into. Although the effort required to get there is considerable, the rewards inherent to entering into a tight-knit community of motivated individuals that possess very specialized skills make it very much worthwhile. As always, stay safe out there, and be sure to visit the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders website at www.nchazmat.com.
Glenn Clapp is a past president of the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders and has over 24 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.