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PORTABLE SCENE LIGHTING
Incidents involving hazardous materials are
handled much differently than the majority of
calls to which fire departments respond.
To most firefighters, the response to
incidents involving hazardous materials is
very slow and methodical—not what many
firefighters expected when they signed
on for the job. But, experience and regulations have shown that this approach is
best. Reprogramming personnel to respond
in this manner is necessary and important so that the incident is handled properly.
There is a great deal of training, education,
practice, and discipline necessary for the
entire department. The infrequency of these
events makes this more challenging, so an
organization’s leadership must constantly
make everyone aware of the methods necessary to be successful.
In recent years, the fire service has
approached risk management during incidents by adopting a philosophy to risk a lot
to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and
risk nothing so save nothing. There may
be some variation on the wording, but the
thought is that firefighters should not be
endangered for anything that is worthless.
For the big risks, firefighters generally act
on their previous experiences, using recognition and prime decision making, and take
little time to ponder the situation. In contrast to this, responders to known hazmat
events will slow down and gather as much
information as possible before deciding to
act. This will include research, planning,
and safety considerations. The dangers present at fires and hazmat incidents are real,
but firefighters will take more risks at a fire.
This could be a result of less experience and
more preparation regarding the proper way
to handle the event. It could also be because
of strict regulations that specify certain
actions and approaches for this work.
For most firefighters, there is not much history regarding hazmat incident response. They
have not had any time to build up any recognition prime decision making through response
or from vicarious learning through those
who have preceded them. This contrasts fire
response where “probies” can learn from their
elders, though this can be good or bad depending on the experiences of the senior person.
Since hazmat responses are infrequent, there
is not much first-hand knowledge or skill to
pass on. To add to the challenges, modern
hazmat response is in its relative infancy. The
service continues to evolve based on lessons
learned and improved science.
So, the challenge to fire departments is
to be prepared for incidents that are very
infrequent but have significant consequenc-
es if not handled properly. This preparation
must also include a “reprogramming” of fire-
fighters from their “all ahead full” approach
to their regular and routine calls. For what-
ever reason, many firefighters have no inter-
est in hazmat responses, as they would
prefer to hand them over to specialists. They
have no desire to delve too deeply into the
area and are not generally motivated to learn
more than the bare minimum. They also are
challenged to maintain their skills in many
other areas, so time can be a factor. If some-
thing is to fall off the training agenda, it is
likely to be items of minimal interest.
In basic recruit school, firefighters are
given some of the basics of hazmat responses.
For example, those in training for Firefighter
I and II are also given hazmat awareness
and operations classes (at least in Michigan).
Regulations require continuing education in
some of the basics to maintain knowledge.
One can only speculate about how much of
this information is valid and retained or if
the programs are offered so a “box” can be
checked. This is not intended to cast any
aspersions, only to point out some of the challenges that departments face as they work to
establish and maintain the necessary compe-tencies for this important job function.
Identify an Expert
There are opportunities for departments
to better prepare personnel and their organizations. Each organization should have at
least one “expert” in this field. The size of the
department and the potential risks it faces
will determine how many are needed. In larger departments, there is probably a hazmat
response team. In smaller organizations, there
can be regional response capabilities. One can
venture a guess that some smaller organizations with limited response capabilities have
not prepared much for a hazmat response.
That should be a conscious decision based on
resources and threats.
An in-house expert is invaluable in
helping prepare the organization for a
response. He should be on top of the issues
and the latest developments. The world of
hazmat response is evolving much fast-
er than fire response. There are new chemi-
cals (and related hazards) being developed,
discovered, or invented. New technologies
to handle releases and spills are being pro-
duced, and regulations are being reviewed
and rewritten. There is a lot to know. Only
an individual with the right mindset can
stay on top of everything. He can then sift
through all the information and determine
the appropriate level of information and
training that needs to be presented to the
Staying motivated for any length of
time for infrequent emergencies is a challenge to everyone. In the area of hazmat
response, there is much to be learned
and few opportunities to put the lessons into practice. It takes sound leadership and management to keep an
organization prepared for low-frequen-cy but high-risk events. When an organization has personnel willing to commit
time and energy in these areas, it must
get creative to support the individuals
and keep the motivation high. I realize
there are restrictions such as labor agreements and budgetary considerations, but
an effort must be made to reward those
willing to step up to the challenge. And,
it is not always about money (though
it should not be discounted.) There are
other things that can be done to create a
good work environment. Leaders should
always be able to reward high performers
in one way or another.
Response to emergencies involving hazardous materials can be very technical and
challenging to fire departments. They are
not as simple as a structure fire where it is a
matter of overcoming the Btus being generated (provided there is not a rescue). Hazmat
responses are methodical and seldom rushed.
They must follow standards and regulations
that are much more specific than those applicable to firefighting. It is a different mindset and requires personnel committed to the
cause. Individuals who take on this challenge
must be supported and used to help prepare
the entire department. Sometimes infrequent
emergencies cause organizations to overlook the requirements to be prepared. Regular
and routine commitment is necessary by the
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive
director of the Fire Department Safety Officers
Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the
Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008,
a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire
Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire
Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past
president of the International Association of Fire
Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission
on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served
as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire
Administration for seven months. He has a master’s
degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science
and administration and has taught extensively.
to overlook the
requirements to be
prepared. Regular and
is necessary by