Hazmat Instructors Teach Clues to Save Lives

In the more than two decades the CDP has been offering hazmat curriculum, it’s developed a program which takes responders from basic awareness to advanced knowledge, while enhancing their confidence through realistic training exercises involving toxic chemical agents and biological materials.


A team of responders transports a ‘victim’ to safety during an exercise at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness. Using the type of equipment firefighters and others have in the field and exercises which mimic real-world scenarios, the CDP provides responders with an immersive training experience, giving them the knowledge and skills needed to properly respond to a variety of incidents and save lives. (Photos courtesy of the CDP)

By Jennifer Bacchus, CDP External Affairs

Every time a first responder enters a burning building, approaches a vehicle accident, or answers a medical emergency call, they could encounter hazardous materials.

“Regardless of the discipline you work under — law enforcement, EMS or fire — there is a high probability, when you respond to your next call, chemicals will be around,” said Steve Curry, an instructor at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP).

Because of that, Curry trains his students to be detectives — to look for shapes of bottles, particular colors, any indication as to which chemical components may be at the site.


An instructor at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness guides first responders through decontamination techniques. The CDP trains responders to react to a variety of hazardous material incidents, ensuring they have the knowledge and ability to protect property and save lives.

“As an instructor, my worst fear is that I’ll be sitting at home watching the news and hear about someone I taught who missed a clue,” he said.

Curry grew up wanting to be a firefighter. In Jacksonville, Florida, in 1986, he got his first chance, beginning as a volunteer.

That chance also afforded him his first hazmat training, ultimately leading him to volunteer for hazmat teams and his career as an instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy and the CDP.

Curry and his fellow instructors focus on decision-making as they teach, stressing the importance of knowing what can happen and what the responder can do with their knowledge and equipment.

“There is no such thing as ‘always’ and no such thing as ‘never,’” said Jeff Whittaker, who served 29 years as a firefighter in Michigan, including five years as a hazmat specialist, before becoming an instructor at the CDP.

Whittaker encourages students to research and know both what can happen and under what circumstances things can happen.

“I try to portray not only the facts, but how to put them together and how to adapt what they are taught for practical applications,” said Whittaker.

For Scott Davonski, an instructor at the Suffolk County (New York) Fire Academy, New York City Fire Academy and the CDP, one of the benefits of training at the CDP is the mixture of students.

“At the CDP, we’re not dealing strictly with the fire service,” he said. “So, we learn from the students as well. They might do something differently in hospitals, for example.”

That diversity can translate into better on-scene working relationships when the students return home, according to Whittaker.

Students work to clamp leaks in industrial piping during Hazardous Materials Technician training at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness. The CDP’s week-long HMT Course teaches firefighters and others to safely and effectively respond to a variety of incidents involving hazardous materials.

“I like to foster an exchange of ideas between the students,” he said, adding the various backgrounds — fire, law enforcement and healthcare — often have different capabilities and manpower.

By incorporating their various knowledge and abilities into a training scenario, they learn to work together as a team in the classroom as well as in the field, said Whittaker.

In the more than two decades the CDP has been offering hazmat curriculum, it’s developed a program which takes responders from basic awareness to advanced knowledge, while enhancing their confidence through realistic training exercises involving toxic chemical agents and biological materials.

“You can’t go anywhere else in the U.S. other than the CDP and be around this stuff during training,” said Curry.

Responders assess a tanker leak during Hazardous Materials Technician training at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness. The CDP’s week-long HMT Course teaches firefighters and others to safely and effectively respond to a variety of incidents involving hazardous materials.

Curry said he often sees students, in the course of four or five days, go from being overwhelmed at the information they are presented to an accomplished look when they see through the exercises and understand the concepts.

“That’s why I keep going back — for that accomplished look,” he said. “You see the light bulb come on and know they understand what they’ve been taught the last five days; that they get it.”

All hazmat courses at the CDP are based on the National Fire Protection Association’s standards for hazardous materials response.

“The NFPA has become the gold standard for hazardous material handling. Where OSHA’s guidelines are suggestions, the NFPA’s standards are more defined with steps and processes to follow,” said Roy Marlow, a supervisory instructional systems specialist at the center.

An instructor guides a responder through the proper use of foam to mitigate a hazardous material spill at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness. The CDP trains responders to react to a variety of hazardous material incidents, ensuring they have the knowledge and ability to protect property and save lives.

Four years ago, the CDP aligned its training to the NFPA model of delineation between various hazmat training levels, ensuring it has courses for responders at all functional levels.

Hazmat awareness courses span basic awareness for anyone who may encounter hazardous materials while performing their job, operations level training for those who may be called upon to mitigate a hazardous materials incident, and technician level training for those who lead hazmat operations.

The CDP is in the process of creating two new hazmat courses — a Hazardous Materials Officer course, which will be geared at experienced responders who will supervise a hazmat response, and a Decontamination Leader course, which will teach responders additional decision-making skills and how to plan, set up and manage decontamination corridors for onsite and hospital operations.

“Large-scale incidents don’t happen often, but, when they do, we want responders to have the knowledge they need,” said Marlow.

A responder secures a ‘victim’ during training at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness. Using the type of equipment responders have in the field and simulations which mimic real-world scenarios, the CDP provides responders with the knowledge and skills needed to safely respond to a variety of hazardous materials incidents and save lives.

The center is also preparing distance learning refresher courses, which will enable graduates of the various hazmat courses to continually update their knowledge. The Hazardous Materials Awareness Refresher course is already active and similar refresher training for the CDP’s Hazardous Materials Operations and Hazardous Materials Technician courses is being developed.

These refresher courses will also assist agencies to maintain a qualified hazmat response capability.  

The center provides advanced all-hazards training to about 60,000 first responders annually through approximately 50 resident and non-resident courses and an equal number of web-based offerings.

Two responders build overflow and underflow dams during hazardous material training at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness. Students are taught to use the density of a product, relative to water, to determine which type of dam would work best for each incident.

Training at the CDP is provided free of charge by FEMA to state, local, tribal, and territorial emergency responders, including round-trip transportation, meals and lodging.

Information on all CDP courses can be found on the center’s website at https://cdp.dhs.gov/.

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