We Are Not in the Fight Alone – Developing and Maintaining Relationships with Community Partners

When we take an introspective look at our hazmat team in terms of our response capabilities and our preparations for those responses, we often neglect to also evaluate our relationships with external community partners.  image

By evaluating our existing relationships with those partners and determining what new relationships could be developed, we can ensure that our hazmat response capabilities are optimized and that we are also working “smarter, not harder” at hazmat incidents. As no one person or organization can know everything there is to know about any given subject, it is very true that success on the hazmat scene often depends on knowing who to talk to in order to get the information and expertise you need.

One such relationship that is truly beneficial is our relationship with our law enforcement counterparts. This relationship is especially paramount when we respond to a call involving explosives or weapons of mass destruction. Thankfully, these types of calls rarely occur. Involving local law enforcement agencies in your response preparations and even hazmat team training pays off huge dividends when the dispatch tones sound for such a response. If your local law enforcement agency has a hazardous devices unit — often termed a bomb squad — joint planning and training can be especially productive.

I have actually been on incidents that involved improvised explosives and chemicals, necessitating joint entries with both hazmat team members and bomb squad technicians. As the old saying goes, “the incident scene is not the time and place to get to know one another and each other’s capabilities.” Some law enforcement agencies even send selected bomb squad members through hazmat technician training to get them acquainted with technician-level equipment and response techniques.

Building Relationships

We should also not limit our discussion to local law enforcement agencies. In North Carolina for example, the State Highway Patrol will definitely be present on highway transportation incidents on the interstate. A productive partnership will foster good communications on scene and will facilitate the safe and timely reopening of the roadway.

Another relationship that is imperative to have in place is with your local emergency management agency. Local emergency management is traditionally thought of in a logistical sense in that they serve as the conduit to logistical resources that you may not have in your own agency or jurisdiction. While that statement is definitely true, local emergency management can also provide guidance to the responsible party that created, or is responsible for, a spill or release in the area of chemical spill reporting.

Local emergency management representatives may provide in-depth fixed facility information in terms of site-specific plans and other documentation that can assist with determining what hazards are present and what specific products you are dealing with at an incident.

If your hazmat team exists in a municipality or other jurisdiction with a public works department, make sure that you have established a strong relationship with that organization. Public works agency personnel can truly be referred to as “non-traditional” emergency responders in that they can serve as force multipliers at incident scenes when it is safe for them to do so.

Public works agencies can often also provide both heavy equipment and trained operators to assist us at hazmat incidents. For example, I have been on hazmat scenes in which we had to construct a dam to stop the flow of product in a creek in a setting in which shovels and strong backs would simply not suffice. Public works was able to bring in an excavator and make short work of what was going to be a long day otherwise.

Another example of agencies that can bring their own areas of expertise to hazmat scenes are your local water and sewer departments. If you have pre-established contacts with your wastewater treatment facility personnel you can advise them of any releases that might impact their facility, especially if there are acids or bases that have entered into the sanitary sewer system as they can impact wastewater treatment operations. Water treatment personnel can assist with specific knowledge of spills or the releases of hazardous materials and how they impact a water supply; and both water and sewer personnel can provide infrastructure maps and information for their systems.

Likewise, utility companies — such as electric and gas companies — can provide detailed information regarding their particular infrastructure; and can lend their own expertise and specialized tools and equipment to response efforts on scene. Many electric and gas companies can also provide pertinent training to your hazmat team members, often at no cost.

Finding Partnerships

Let us next turn our focus to partnerships that can enhance our capabilities at hazmat incidents in the transportation setting. If a railroad traverses your territory, it behooves you to become acquainted with their manager of hazardous materials for your territory. Class 1 railroads in particular — Norfolk Southern and CSX are examples — employ specific personnel that respond to major rail incidents and can provide invaluable information in regard to rail-specific hazmat response techniques, as well as serving as the interface with hazmat cleanup companies contracted by the railroad for their services. In addition to assistance in the response realm, many railroads can provide valuable rail response training for your team personnel. In terms of relationships with partner agencies in the transportation setting, the arena of highway transportation parallels that of the rail environment.

Trucking companies can provide specific information, expertise and training pertaining to various highway modes of conveyance. In the past, for example, a local highway transportation company allowed our hazmat team to conduct a training session at their facility that was co-taught by the hazmat team and trucking company personnel. In doing so, both team personnel were able to receive valuable hands-on experience with several different types of highway transportation tank trailers.

In keeping with the above highway transportation theme, we often think of our towing and recovery companies as doing just that — towing wrecked vehicles from the scene. Many such companies and their personnel can, however, do much more. At scenes with small fluid spills many towing and recovery companies will actually take possession of fluid-soaked absorbents and will dispose of them properly. Some towing and recovery companies are also experts in heavy vehicle extrication and righting overturned heavy vehicles.

I was especially impressed on one hazmat call involving an overturned tractor trailer when the towing company arrived on scene with two huge rotator wreckers with one towing a trailer. The most impressive action they performed was that the first piece of equipment pulled off the trailer was a port-o-let on skids, this was welcomed by all working the incident since we had been on the scene a long time. They then proceeded to skillfully utilize low pressure airbags and the two wreckers to gently upright the truck and trailer prior to towing them away.

An additional beneficial relationship that should exist is that between your hazmat team and local hazardous materials cleanup companies. As most hazmat responders are well aware, public safety hazmat teams do not perform cleanup operations nor do we take possession of hazardous materials for disposal. Hazmat cleanup companies are the entities that do just that, contracting with the responsible party to clean up spills and releases. Although emergency response and hazmat cleanup personnel approach a hazmat incident from different perspectives, we all can learn much from the other’s discipline.

Each training opportunity that I have attended with cleanup company personnel has been very educational and mutually beneficial. On the incident scene cleanup, company personnel can also perform very specialized product transfer techniques that we emergency responders often do not have the equipment and training to perform, such as drilling a tanker or performing a hot tap on a pressure vessel.

We will conclude our discussion of the development and maintenance of relationships in the hazmat world with the thought of what happens after we leave the scene. Namely, who follows up to ensure that the spill or release is cleaned up according to applicable regulations so that no further harm to persons or the environment exists? That would typically be your local environmental services department. Environmental services personnel are well trained in assessing cleanup compliance with regulatory standards and they can serve as a great ally both during and after hazmat incidents.

In summation, in terms of hazmat response, if we are in the fight alone we have already lost the battle. We need to cultivate and maintain relationships with our community partners, including those that are not traditionally thought of as participants on the hazmat playing field. By doing so we can ensure that we provide the safest and most comprehensive hazmat capabilities for our citizens and stakeholders. As is often stated, “It’s not necessarily what you know, it’s who you know.” There is no setting in which that statement is truer than in hazardous materials response. 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 23 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.

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