Turning it Around:

I usually start out annual required hazmat refresher training with the statement “Welcome to your annual hazmat refresher class!” In return, the class members often respond with groans and less than excited looks on their faces. Although annual refresher training in the hazmat community is a mandatory requirement, we can make such training realistic, meaningful, and (dare I say) fun.  This requires innovation, effort, and enthusiasm on the part of the instructor; however, the effort invested pays off tremendously when an actual hazmat response occurs.  image

Attendees of hazmat refresher classes often wonder why they are in attendance at such training.  The simple answer is that it is a regulatory requirement. The Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard promulgated by OSHA (aka 29 CFR 1910.120) requires hazardous materials responders to complete annual refresher training at their highest level of certification. A big misconception is that OSHA stipulates the number of hours per year of such training. In reality, OSHA instead states in 29 CFR 1910.120 (q)(8)(i) that personnel shall receive “annual training of sufficient content and duration to maintain their competencies, or shall demonstrate competency in those areas at least yearly.”

In North Carolina, the commonly accepted “industry standard” for operations level hazmat refresher training is eight hours per year. Due to the large range of topics and the hands-on nature of many competencies covered at the technician level, many jurisdictions require at least 24 hours of refresher training each year for technician level responders. 

As stated above, hazmat refresher training is required by OSHA. Such regulatory requirements should not, however, be the only reason for ensuring that personnel receive proper recurrent training. Leaders in the hazmat community should also view the provision of refresher training as a moral imperative to ensure the ability of personnel to competently and safely operate at hazmat incidents so that incidents are mitigated in a timely manner and everyone — responders and civilians alike — is able to go home at the end of the day.   

How do we make hazmat refresher training realistic, meaningful and fun? First of all, successful hazmat instructors should be motivated to teach the subject and that motivation should translate into an upbeat and engaging presentation. Nothing puts class attendees to sleep more effectively than a monotone instructor that is just going through the motions of instructing. The incorporation of some competition into hazmat refresher training is one method that can be utilized to maintain the interest of attendees. We do not want to belittle our class attendees by conducting an activity that is too juvenile for adult learners, but nothing spurs interest in a group of Type A fire service personnel than a competition for bragging rights. I have used both a Jeopardy type competition using hazmat questions — or more properly stated, answers — and a Battleship type game in which the element of chance is introduced as teams that answer hazmat questions correctly are able to choose a square on a Battleship board that either adds to or subtracts from their point total. Templates for both of the aforementioned games and many others can be found on the Internet at no cost. 

We will next take a look at the need for realistic hazmat refresher training at the operations level. Many attendees are used to spending their eight hours of hazmat refresher training per year in a classroom setting. Such classroom instruction is needed; however, we can also incorporate realistic scenario-based training into our annual refreshers at the operations level. You may be wondering how that can be accomplished at the operations level. One such area in which we can utilize scenario-based training is in the damming of a creek or stream. In a former department in which I worked as a training officer, we had a creek on our training center property. We would occasionally practice constructing an overflow or an underflow (inverted siphon) dam in the creek, as doing so is definitely an operations level competency. In the case of an inverted siphon dam, we can also use dry dog food or a similar biodegradable substance to simulate a floating contaminant. 

An additional area in which we can conduct realistic scenario-based training at the operations level is that of decontamination. As operations level personnel can be utilized to perform decontamination at hazmat scenes if they have received proper training in decontamination and the use of the associated personal protective equipment, what better method is there to train than to simply set up decon and actually perform it? Your local technician level hazmat team or — in North Carolina — your Regional Response Team are often more than willing to participate in such training if given adequate notice with the request. Another area in which operations level responders are delving into more and more is that of air monitoring — especially on carbon monoxide and natural gas leak calls. To set up a realistic scenario, we can have personnel make entry into a training structure in appropriate personal protective equipment and with a four gas meter, then follow appropriate standard operating guidelines for the situation presented. The facilitator will then provide simulated air monitoring readings at appropriate intervals. 

Although we have concentrated on hazmat refresher training at the operations level until this juncture, we should not forget about recurrent training at the technician level and methods for ensuring that such training is realistic, meaningful, and fun. We oftentimes will utilize a crawl, walk, run approach in which we will begin by engaging our hazmat team members in training in the usual hazmat technician competencies. We can include a mix of hands-on instruction — product control, PPE, etc. and classroom instruction — research, chemistry of hazmat, etc. We then transition the team into skills-based exercises before progressing to a real-time full-scale exercise. Just as with operations level hazmat refresher training, we can intertwine competitions to make things interesting. Why not pair off personnel on each shift into teams in timed skills-based competitive events with penalties accrued for technique infractions? Team cohesion almost always improves in such circumstances, with both competition within shifts and also between shifts. When doing so, I like to post the results in a conspicuous location to foster the sense of pride that develops as a by-product. 

We can also rely on partnerships with private sector industries to enable us to train in a realistic manner at locations other than fire department facilities. One such example in my career occurred when we took all three shifts of our hazmat team to a highway transportation company to view and train on the various types of hazmat highway tank trailers. We can learn from looking at PowerPoint slides of highway tank trailers, however nothing beats viewing such means of hazmat transportation in person and even putting our hands on the equipment. Another example of cooperation with private sector partners is that of conducting full-scale exercises at actual hazardous materials fixed facilities. If we have built up relationships with our local industries, such training opportunities will be met with approval and will be mutually beneficial to both parties. 

In summation, we can indeed turn things around by taking the dread out of the oftentimes dreaded annual hazmat refresher training by making hazmat refresher training realistic, meaningful, and even fun. The increased engagement of our personnel in such training will then pay huge dividends in their operational effectiveness and safety out in the field. Such a turnaround can be accomplished not only at the operations level, but also with technician level personnel. 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 is a division chief with the Town of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina Fire Department. He has over 20 years of fire service and emergency management experience and is a Technician-Level Hazmat Instructor, a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager, and a Certified Fire Protection Specialist.

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