Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

Hazardous-Materials Incident Response

If you look at how fire departments respond to incidents involving hazardous materials, you might wonder how the same people who rush into fires take such a different approach.

Richard Marinucci

Richard Marinucci

Consider preparation (education and training), equipment, rules, regulations, standards, operations, rehab, physical examinations, and decontamination approaches. There are more, and there are good reasons for the approach taken. We can learn a lot from this that can make department operations more efficient and effective as well as less risky when the risk/benefit is not appropriate.



Those who opt to specialize in hazardous materials (hazmat) response take it on themselves to become more educated. This could be combination of the type of people who respond and the regulations that require specific training based on the type of action to be taken. There are levels of training and certification—awareness, operations, technician, and specialist. Assignments are made based on the level of certification, and organizations are only supposed to provide service to the level at which they are prepared and staffed. Contrast this with a fire response where levels of training do not come into play when selecting strategy and tactics in many circumstances—nor does staffing! Take, for example, the two-in/two-out rule. There is an exception if life is in danger. The hazmat standards do not make exceptions.

It could be argued that most hazmat teams spend a great deal of time preparing for very low-frequency events. Fortunately, there are few major or significant incidents involving toxic chemicals that result from spills, leaks, ruptures, and the like. But, those involved with response teams take a sound approach to be ready should the rare event occur. They also know there may be a need for different approaches, depending on the circumstances. They monitor weather and other factors that influence the emergency. It is a very logical approach and offers lessons that can be learned for other emergencies.


Now look at the equipment and protective clothing for hazmat responses. There are specific suits that are used for specific situations. If the suits are not available, then there is no entry. As part of any team, there are monitors to check to see if the atmosphere is safe and to determine the level of protection necessary. If there are no monitors, then there is no entry. The list can go on, but you should begin to see the picture. In a regulated response, rules are to be followed, or there are consequences. Contrast this with the approach taken by many fire departments and firefighters to a fire. How many firefighters (with the backing of their officers and fire departments) will take a shortcut to attempt to accomplish the mission during a fire response? Now, ask how many of those same people will do the same when the emergency involves an unknown chemical and no fire?

Rules, Regulations, and Standards

The discussion about this approach to response and operations continues with a look at rules, regulations, and standards. There are Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, CFRs, and other mandatory standards. Responders are expected to know these and comply or face consequences such as fines. A well-trained and well-prepared response team will do the proper research and will be very methodical in its approach to mitigating a situation. There will be no haste or rushing into unknown areas. There will be calculated decisions and no guesswork. If information is not available, there will be research to gain the facts necessary to make good decisions. Staffing must be adequate before entry is made. Contrast this with fire response. There are few regulations (two in/two out comes to mind, and the fire service demanded an exemption, so it can deviate if necessary). Even when National Fire Protection Association standards exist, many departments pick and choose their areas of compliance.

Click for full article