The State of Hazmat Response in the Fire Service

American hazardous materials response has never been at a higher level. Hazmat response teams have increasingly been coordinated at the federal, state and local levels, leading to more efficient responses. Additionally, the quality and capabilities of equipment have dramatically improved over the last several years and are poised to blossom this year with substantial updates for existing technology, such as the significantly upgraded HazMatID 360, as well as the release of the new user-friendly GUARDION gas chromatography/mass spectrometer (GC/MS) by Smiths Detection.

As a result, the next several years promise a shift from the establishment of new hazmat teams to a focus on making the existing teams more prepared and better trained, and increasing their operational capabilities. Hazmat teams will likely adopt a back-to-basics approach to training–fundamentals of detection and monitoring, tactical use of mitigation equipment and techniques, and chemical sampling and identification. Driving this new trend: WMD concerns, but also chemical suicides and methamphetamine labs.

PPE
Hazmat personal protective equipment (PPE) continues to evolve. For the first time, it’s possible to obtain chemical protective clothing (CPC) that also provides significant protection against alpha, beta and low-energy gamma radiation. Demron, manufactured by Radiation Shield Technologies, is a nanofabric impregnated with heavy metals. It has the same protective effect, thickness for thickness, as lead, but it can’t protect significantly against medium- and high-energy gamma radiation due to the limited thickness of the CPC material. Additionally, more manufacturers are offering CPC that provides some flash protection.

Heat stress is a growing concern among hazmat responders. The next generation of PPE will need to provide a much greater level of relief from heat stress. This hurdle has not been successfully addressed to date, but nanofabrics that provide greater thermal conductivity properties may be an answer in the near future. In the meantime, real-time physiological monitoring devices, such as the BioHarness by RAE Systems, offer an increased margin of safety for entry personnel by monitoring heart rate, skin temperature and blood pressure. This data can provide early warnings of heat stress.

Air Monitoring
Atmospheric monitoring has been revolutionized by manufacturers, such as RAE Systems, Smiths Detection and Environics, with the expanded use of orthogonal detection strategies. Orthogonal detection refers to the use of multiple detection technologies and sensor types in a concerted fashion, all in a single instrument, to limit false positives and false negatives.

Instruments such as the ChemPro 100i use multiple technologies–such as ion mobility spectroscopy (IMS), metal oxide sensors (MOS) and Geiger counters–to provide a wide range of detection capabilities. The MultiRAE Pro has the capability of using multiple electrochemical sensors, a combustible gas indicator (CGI), a photoionization detector (even down to a detection level of low ppb) and a Geiger counter all in a single, easy-to-operate, handheld unit. Many other manufacturers are following suit.

The bottom line: Air monitoring operations have never been simpler to perform–but training is still paramount.

Training
With grant funding starting to decline, the focus of hazmat team management will shift from acquisition to maintenance and training. The emphasis on training has been dramatically increased recently due to the large influx of advanced technology and equipment. Training will also increasingly focus on integrating the use and interpretation of these various technologies to maximize their collective leverage. When different detection and identification technologies are used simultaneously the incidence of false positives and false negatives can be greatly reduced–thereby significantly increasing the reliability of the final answer.
Several new federal training programs have been established as part of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, most notably the National Center for Emergency Response in Surface Transportation training center in Colorado and the National Disaster Preparedness Training center in Hawaii.

Training at the local level can also be conducted more readily with the introduction of the first dedicated Hazardous Materials Technician textbook, published by Pearson/Brady, which includes full instructor support. This textbook includes all of the core competencies outlined in NFPA 472 at the level of detail suitable for hands-on hazmat technician classes up to 240 hours in length.

The regulatory environment is also changing with more significant adoption of the Global Harmonization System (GHS) in the transportation industry necessitating retraining many personnel. Soon, the venerable Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) will all but disappear, replaced by the internationally standardized Safety Data Sheet (SDS). Fortunately, the SDS is similar to the modern ANSI-standardized MSDS that most hazmat techs are familiar with.

An Evolving Field
All of the new technological improvements and training enhancements will be necessary to combat the growing problem of chemical suicides and the relentless movement of methamphetamine labs east toward the Atlantic seaboard and up and down the coast from there. Hazmat response teams–whether private sector or public sector, fire department based or law enforcement based–are facing a broader set of response challenges now than ever before. The threat of chemical, biological and radiological terrorism hasn’t abated, and instability in the Middle East and the rise of nuclear rogue states, such as North Korea and Iran, only make the situation worse. Fortunately, modern response equipment, PPE, detection instrumentation and training products are up to the task and getting better every year.

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