Hazmat Training: Preparing for the Worst

At the specialist level, trainees are expected to don and doff a hazmat suit. For some, this can bring out anxieties that range from fear of suit entrapment to decreased mobility or visibility.

There is 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 personal protective equipment will ensure you are prepared for day one of your training. Ultimately, preparation leads to peace of mind in the hot zone.

Types of Hazmat Training
There are several levels of hazardous waste operations and emergency response ("Hazwoper") training. The requirements for each level will vary, depending on the state from 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). More specifically, this level of training, typically held in a regional teaching facility, is required for every government employee (whether federal, state, or local) responding to a hazardous materials emergency. These individuals serve as a first line of defense, striving to identify a hazardous incident and protect citizens from immediate exposure. At the First Operations Responder level, you must be able to properly identify a hazardous incident, prevent the substance from spreading, and make the appropriate notification to your team.

Firefighters who desire to be on a hazardous materials response team can expect to receive training one step above First Responder Operations -- the Technician level. This is the minimum level required for all hazmat team responders who will be handling chemical substances. Technicians require a solid understanding of basic chemical and toxicological behavior they will use to stop the spread of hazardous substances. Core competencies include performing advanced control and containment operations while using PPE. Ultimately, technicians must successfully implement decontamination and termination procedures.

For those who require specific knowledge of various chemical substances, the level of Hazardous Materials Specialist is necessary. 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 both to securely classify and to verify hazardous materials by using advanced survey instruments and equipment. Additionally, they must know the state emergency response plan and have the ability to develop a specific site safety and control plan. At this level, trainees will experience significant hands-on training, including use of the personal protective equipment required for their job site.

Hands On, Suits On
While the initial stage of training consists 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 at least one-third of Hazwoper 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 that range from fear of suit entrapment to decreased mobility or visibility. Knowing your options will help you to feel comfortable in your suit and will 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 the humidity inside their suits causes their visors to fog. To fight the fog, bring a towel inside the suit with you that can be used to clear your visor of condensation.

Maneuverability is a key point of concern when it comes to donning your hazmat suit. 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, our team is armed with suits that 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 no layers can be physically removed, providing consistent, maximum protection.

Monitoring and 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, you will incorporate knowledge from the first part of your 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 and Patch
With your knowledge of chemical substances, personal protective equipmen, and detection behind you, the final stage of training is where the real work comes in: plugging and patching. At this point, you will learn how to fix leaks, pipelines, and buckets, all while donning your hazmat suit. You may be asked to perform advanced plugging and patching, such as an overturned gas truck, where you will have to drill into the container and evacuate the hazardous substance.

At the completion of this task, you will reach the final stage of specialist training, which is 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.

Staying Fresh
As with any training experience, it is important to refresh and test your knowledge continually. At our department, we have monthly in-station manual study, in which we cover each topic throughout the course of the year. Most importantly, we continually incorporate hands-on exercise to reinforce and test our knowledge of the material that is covered each month. Every year concludes 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 is the responsibility of each department to nurture and maintain the skills of its personnel.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jeff Carman has more than 25 years of fire-service experience. He currently serves as the Battalion Chief of the Roseville (Calif.) Fire Department. In 2009, Carman was honored with the "Responder of the Year" award from the California State Firefighter's Association. He is affiliated with the International Association of Fire Chiefs National Hazmat Fusion Center where he serves as the Team Leader for the Western Regional Incident Survey Team. He holds an AA in Liberal Arts, an AS in Fire Science, and a BS degree in Public Safety Administration.

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