By Dr. Randall Hanifen
Imagine that it’s 5:30 p.m., and you get a call about a potential incident at a commercial building that stores hazardous chemicals. What is your planning and response for this type of hazmat incident? If you are not able to answer this question without hesitation or some research, you have some homework to do.
It is true that there has been some reduction in hazmat incidents, whether at fixed facilities or transportation systems. But this reduction in hazmat incidents is a double-edged sword.
Fewer hazmat incidents mean an improvement in public safety, which is great for community residents and neighboring businesses. But the lack of 911 hazmat calls and the perception that there is a reduced risk of a hazard provides those in charge of budgetary dollars a sense of false security and a reduced need to spend funds on a hazmat program.
Writing a Comprehensive Hazmat Incident Program
Often, the problem with spending public funds on hazardous materials or any other special operations equipment and personnel is the lack of a comprehensive program. Government spending may sometimes occur out of alignment with a needs assessment, personnel development or organized deployment model.
Ideally, creating a written hazmat program starts with a hazard analysis. If you do not have any or minimal hazards in your area, it is likely your first responder organization does not need a full-blown hazmat team.
I have seen instances where departments spend millions of dollars to buy heavy rescue equipment and other necessary items, only to face incidents such as auto extrications where that equipment is not necessary. Training is also a factor; some organizations may only have two people capable of operating advanced heavy rescue equipment.
The justification for buying expensive hazmat equipment commonly centers around attracting new volunteers. But the truth is that there are likely to be more injuries or line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) due to a lack of understanding of the hazards involved in using heavy rescue equipment.
Some Low-Risk Communities Could Utilize a Regional Response Team
Once you’ve determined the hazmat incident possibilities in your area, look around to see if a regional response team could assist with your 911 calls in a reasonable amount of time and has the capabilities consistent with your needs. This strategy could save money for your organization by allowing you to purchase and train with a minimal amount of hazardous materials equipment, while other responders with a larger equipment cache and training could be dispatched to help your organization when a hazmat incident occurs.
This tactic is known as a tiered response and can be a great way to collaborate around hazmat and special operations. If no regional response team is available, see if it would be feasible to build a hazmat team through the collaboration of local fire departments.
Many hazmat incident planners do not realize that hazmat and technical rescue require a large amount of manpower. The typical 911 call requires 20 people or more to handle a hazmat incident once the decontamination, rapid entry, backup, and medical teams are taken into account. Larger cities may have this number of people, but smaller communities will require more than one organization to handle 911 hazmat calls.
Forming a Hazmat Team
Once a first responder organization determines that a special operations or a hazmat team needs to be formed, the first action should be to send a small core group away for training. These people should receive both basic and advanced training in technical rescue or hazmat. Ideally, this small group should be involved with other teams from the region, state or federal government if possible.
When I participated in the small group that created Butler County Technical Rescue, I was appointed to a neighboring regional urban search and rescue team and also served on state and federal teams. This experience allowed me to see much of the hazmat equipment in action and to make a list of colleagues that I could contact in case I needed practical expertise beyond classroom instruction.
Within the core group, you also want a few people with business management backgrounds. Forming a hazmat team will be one of the largest projects that most fire officers will ever be involved in; it will require many moving elements to get the team up and running.
Acquiring Hazmat Equipment
The last part of hazmat planning and response should be attaining the equipment. However, care should be taken to buy equipment that is compatible with neighboring hazmat teams.
Any hazmat incident of significance will likely involve more than one team. Once hazmat equipment and vehicles are purchased, more team members need to be drafted and the team operations structure needs finalization. If you bring everyone onto the hazmat team prior to having a mostly developed system and core group, it is more likely that mass chaos will ensue, as everyone wants to be an expert.
Special operations and hazmat team development is likely one of the best experiences I have encountered during my career. However, this work should not be entered lightly; it is a multi-decade commitment that needs constant work to ensure success.