There’s an old saying among the firefighter community: “Train as if your life depends on it, because it does.” Training can mean the difference between life and death, particularly when it comes to hazardous materials. Knowing what to expect and being familiar with your PPE will ensure you’re prepared from the first day of your hazmat training. Ultimately, preparation leads to peace of mind in the hot zone.
Hazmat Operations Levels & Training
There are several levels of hazmat operations and emergency response (“hazwhoper”) training. The requirements for each level will vary, depending on the state in which you operate. Regardless of the number of hours required by your state, the national governing standard, OSHA 1910.120, stresses competency above all.
Those seeking hazmat training as part of their core competency will operate at the level of First Responder Operations (FRO). The training required for this level is typically held in a regional teaching facility and is required for every government employee (whether federal, state or local) who will respond to a hazmat emergency. These individuals serve as a first line of defense, striving to identify a hazardous incident and protect citizens from immediate exposure. At the FRO level, you must be able to properly identify a hazmat incident, prevent the substance from spreading and make the appropriate notifications to your team.
Firefighters who wish to be part of a hazmat response team can expect to receive training one step above the FRO level, which is the Technician level. This is the minimum level required for all hazmat team responders who will be handling chemical substances. Technicians must have a solid understanding of basic chemical and toxicological behavior because they will be required to actually stop the spread of hazardous substances. Core competencies include performing advanced control and containment operations while wearing proper PPE. Ultimately, technicians must successfully implement decontamination and termination procedures.
Those who must have specific knowledge of various chemical substances will operate at the level of Hazardous Materials Specialist. According to OSHA, the duties of a Specialist “require a more directed or specific knowledge of the various substances they may be called upon to contain.” Specialists must be able to securely classify and verify hazardous materials by using advanced survey instruments and equipment. Additionally, they must know the state emergency response plan and be able to develop a specific site safety and control plan. At this level, trainees will experience significant hands-on training, including use of PPE required for their job site.
Hands On, Suits On
Although the initial stages of hazmat training for Technician and Specialist levels consist of learning about inorganic and organic chemistry, the bulk of your time will be spent acting out scenarios in a hot zone. In fact, OSHA suggests that at least one-third of hazwhoper training consist of hands-on exercises.
At the specialist level, trainees are expected to don and doff a hazmat suit. For some, this can bring out anxieties ranging from fear of suit entrapment to decreased mobility or visibility. Knowing what to expect ahead of time will help you feel comfortable in your suit and help to ease training jitters.
Typically, trainees can expect to be inside the suit for about 35 minutes (approximately 30 minutes inside the hot zone and 5 minutes during decontamination). Emergency response personnel often find that the humidity inside their suit causes their visor to fog up. To fight the fog, bring a towel inside the suit with you to clear your visor of any condensation.
Maneuverability is a key point of concern when it comes to donning hazmat suits. If you have a problem with the breathing device inside your suit, you must be able to fix it while inside the hot zone. At the Roseville (Calif.) Fire Department (RFD), our team is armed with Saint-Gobain’s ONESuit Flash. All of Saint-Gobain’s suits feature a batwing design and a single-piece glove construction, which ensures that removal and reinsertion of the hands are simple tasks. A single-piece construction also means that no layers can be physically removed, providing consistent, maximum protection.
Monitoring & Detection
In the next phase of training, you can expect to become familiar with atmospheric monitoring and detection. Trainees will learn how to identify unknown materials using another component of PPE: a hazardous categorization (hazcat) kit. At this stage, trainees will incorporate knowledge from the first part of their training by using chemical agents to identify the unknown material. Your knowledge of chemicals and instrumentation will be used to identify vapors, liquids and solids that are potentially hazardous.
Plug & Patch
After trainees have obtained knowledge of chemical substances, PPE and detection, the final stage of training—plugging and patching—is where the real work comes in. At this point, you’ll learn how to fix leaks in pipelines, trucks, railcars and other shipping containers, all while wearing your hazmat suit. You may also be asked to perform advanced plugging and patching, which may involve things like overturned gas trucks, where you have to drill into the container and evacuate the hazardous substance.
At the completion of this task, trainees reach the final stage of specialist training—staging a hazmat incident from beginning to end. This can involve evacuating residents, setting up an incident command system, and finally, patching and removing the substance.
As with any training experience, it’s important to continually refresh and test your knowledge. At the RFD, we have monthly in-station manual studies in which we cover each training topic, such as atmospheric monitoring, plugging and patching, etc., throughout the course of the year. Most importantly, we continually incorporate hands-on exercises to reinforce and test our knowledge of the material.
We conclude ever year with a competency exam, which includes a written test for the entire hazmat team. Additionally, each person is required to don chemical protective clothing and perform a variety of tasks such as chemical identification, plugging and patching.
Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of each department to nurture and maintain the skills of its personnel. Considering the heightened level of risk involved with hazmat incidents, training is a necessity not only because it provides highly specialized skills to personnel, but also because it can mean the difference between life and death for those tasked with handling some of the most dangerous substances on earth.