Think Outside the Box

In a previous article, we talked about getting out of the station and utilizing the Department of Transportation’s Emergency Response Guidebook for hazardous materials training. In this article we’re going to take it a step further and get out of the station for some practical, hands-on hazardous materials training.


Take a look at your first due area. What kind of hazardous materials occupancies do you have? Have you ever thought about asking to train at one of these facilities? If not, why not? We can always train at the station or at our department’s training facility, but those have their limitations. We can always practice putting a chlorine C Kit on a dome simulator in the engine bay, but this isn’t very realistic. We can always practice putting a sulfur dioxide A kit on a 150 pound cylinder in one of the rooms at a local burn building, but this is far from a real life application. Why not train in the real world and make it as realistic as possible?

When training in the field, there are two types of training we can accomplish. The first type is the practical hands-on evolution where everyone gets to practice the same skill in the same environment. Depending on the facility where you are training and the amount of time you have, you may be able to perform more than one skill set. Teams will rotate in a round robin type of approach until each team has completed all of the skills. The second type is an actual scenario utilizing a simulated chemical and leak. You would run this scenario just like you would a real call, assigning your Entry and decon teams, hazmat officers, etc. In this case, everyone will not be able to perform every task, but the scenario will mimic a real world emergency where everyone doesn’t get to perform every function anyway.

So where can we train? Let’s look at some possibilities. These are not the only places you can train, but it should be enough to give you some ideas to look for in your jurisdictions. We will focus on transportation and fixed facility emergencies. In some cases, you could do both at the same facility.

Transportation for most hazardous material responders involves highway containers while some of you may also have to contend with water, rail or air transport as well. Highway containers involved are the usual suspects (DOT 406, 407 and 412 trailers in addition to MC 331 and 338 trailers). Do not overlook the possibilities that can be found in normal box trucks and 53 foot tractor trailers. All too often we focus on the tankers and ignore the box body trucks. To do this is to court disaster.

If you have a warehouse, shipping operation, chemical manufacturing facility or fueling operation, your possibilities for a scenario are endless. How would you foam a fire involving a flammable liquid spill from a DOT 406? What would your spill and leak control strategy be for an incident involving a poison leaking from a DOT 407 or an acid from a DOT 412? If you have a repair business that works on damaged trailers, you may be able to actually practice on a damaged container before it is repaired! This is training we cannot hope to do sitting around the station.

As stated earlier, we tend to focus entirely too much on tank trailers and forget about the hazardous materials shipped in box trucks. Common containers found in box trucks include totes, drums, carboys and cylinders. How would you over pack a leaking 55 gallon drum in the back of a tractor trailer? Could you put an A Kit on a leaking cylinder in a cargo van? Have you ever tried to access one of these vehicles in full chemical protective equipment? What tools will you need to get through the lock?             

If you have a rail yard, or if one of the aforementioned facilities has a rail spur, now you can throw a rail car into the mix. It is one thing to install a C Kit on a dome simulator at ground level. Now let’s do it on the real thing! Carry those parts up on top of the rail car and then install them. There is no substitute for this kind of training. We tend to get so focused on the mechanics of installing the kit that we tend to lose sight of the logistics involved in not only getting the kit down range, but also getting the kit up on top of the car before the installation can even begin.

A fixed facility may have numerous pipes and tanks for you to practice on. They may even have some old pipes and tanks that they are in the process of scrapping and will allow you to damage the pipe or tank to simulate a leak. Facility maintenance personnel or your own truck or rescue company will have the tools and the knowledge as to how to make the specific leak you are looking for.

Working with a facility on a scenario-based exercise is a win-win situation for your department and the facility. Your department gets the chance to work in a real live facility with next to nothing — save for the actual chemical — simulated. The facility gets to exercise their emergency response and evacuation plans while working with the fire department at the same time. Everybody wins!

There is only one issue that will generally arise when it comes to working at a fixed facility. That issue is liability. We all know that if we are hurt on the job, whether it is during a real incident or a training exercise, that we are covered under Workmen’s Compensation insurance. The facility you’re training at may not know that and may ask for a legal document absolving them from any responsibility. This should not be a problem. Their legal department or your jurisdiction’s legal department probably already has a generic form already in use. All you will need to do is fill in the blanks — names, dates, addresses, etc. — and have their lawyers look at your form or have your lawyers look at their form and you’re ready to go. I have been involved with numerous training exercises over the years at fixed facilities. These forms have never been an issue.

Training on site gives your team real experience in an actual facility. The facility gets to test their plans while building a working relationship with you and your team BEFORE an actual incident occurs. It is always better to know each other beforehand as opposed to beginning the process at 0300 in the middle of a major emergency. Training on site requires some additional planning and scheduling. You just can’t walk in the front door and ask, “How about Tuesday?” From the first phone call or email to the actual drill could be many weeks or even months. Use this time effectively and efficiently to build the best scenario you can. Make it real and make it a challenge, but by all means make it achievable and make it a learning event. If everyone has fun and learns something by the end of the exercise, you’ve done your job and you’ve done it well.

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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