Hazardous Materials Exercise

Jul 15, 2008

Most firefighters today receive training that meets the objectives of the First Responder Operational level. Among the many tasks assigned to personnel at this training level are establishing scene control, initiating an incident management system, and performing defensive control functions and emergency decontamination procedures. Training involves classroom and hands-on skills to ensure students are fully capable of performing these and many more vital tasks necessary to ensure that the initial stages of a hazardous materials (hazmat) incident are handled safely and effectively.

Photo: Ted Ostrowski, DRDC

Although a hazmat team may be called to the scene of a major incident to perform offensive leak control procedures, firefighters will often be on-scene long before. First arrivals most often include EMS personnel, who may or may not be from the same agency as firefighters, along with local and state/provincial law enforcement ­officers. In addition to the hazmat team, other resources required at the scene of any significant incident often include: cleanup contractors; personnel and equipment from public works and environmental quality agencies; local government officials; representatives of the “responsible party” or the person or group who either owns or is ­otherwise in control of the hazardous ­material that was released.

To coordinate the many entities involved in this type of response, most localities have developed an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) that spells out, in some detail, each agency’s responsibilities. This plan will likely refer to the role of local firefighters, but how many firefighters know the details of this plan or even its existence during their training? If they did learn of the plan, have they ever participated in an exercise to reinforce knowledge of their role and learn about the role of others? And if EMS personnel and police officers have no training in the plan, how can all of these agencies be expected to perform as a cohesive team during a hazmat emergency?

Without the benefit of joint training before an incident, personnel will likely assume their roles as they believe them to be, which can have negative consequences. For example, it is important to know who is responsible for scene control and who is in charge of the incident, as there will be many questions. Who is responsible for cleanup of spilled material; will first responders take on this often-dangerous task themselves? Will there be a battle of wits between firefighters and law enforcement over whether to close a road? Does law enforcement know about the fire department’s incident management system? Police officers may refuse to take direction from anyone other than their sergeant or lieutenant; the orders of a local fire chief may mean little. Who is responsible for emergency decontamination? If it’s the fire department, are rescue squad members aware of this? Do rescue squads provide their members with personal protective equipment, including a self contained breathing apparatus? Do the local hospitals have decontamination stations available up at the entrance to their emergency room? What if responders need the public works department to dig a retention basin using heavy equipment? Are respiratory protection or personal protective equipment needed during this activity? Do public works department employees have access to this equipment and have they been trained in its use?

Photo: Jean Lalonde

Without the benefit of advance planning, too many fire chiefs just assume that their personnel and those from other agencies will know what to do. The real world may spell out a different story – one that could result in injury or death to first responders. And the postincident critique will probably bring many of the problems encountered to light, with more than one suggestion for improving future operations. The unfortunate reality is that promises to correct deficiencies will soon be forgotten, that is, until the next incident and the same issues reoccur.

Why Wait for an incident?
Don’t assume that everyone knows what to do. Conducting a simple, yet effective exercise can be the answer. For years, fire departments have conducted drills for structure fires and vehicle extrication, yet when it comes to drilling for a hazmat incident, the initiative all too often stops.

Do firefighters feel compelled to wait for their emergency management officials to initiate an exercise, or are they overwhelmed by the seemingly daunting challenge of coordinating a multiagency event?

Without a doubt, local fire departments members are fully capable of conducting a tabletop or even a full-scale exercise without spending a lot of money. However, the success of any training exercise of this magnitude will involve time and energy. This investment has a guaranteed high rate of return!

As a result of a multiagency exercise, firefighters are likely to develop long-lasting working relationships with many others whose expertise and resources can mean the difference between success and failure in the future. During an exercise, each agency will have the opportunity to develop the trust of others in their capabilities by allowing personnel to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and abilities.

Furthermore, no one with any degree of real-world experience can deny that the individual personalities involved in an emergency response will play a role in how the incident unfolds. Those attending an exercise will learn about the personalities of other agencies’ representatives. Some may have large egos that need to stroked, some may refuse any advice if it doesn’t agree with what they already believe to be true, some may need to let everyone know how much they know, some may like to be in charge regardless of their rank, some can’t tell you the time without also telling you how a clock is made, and some cannot (or will not) make a decision without first asking permission. It’s better to know these traits before everyone meets on the street at 3:00 a.m. during an incident involving an overturned truck that displays “Poison” placards, and you learn that you can’t get anything done because the guy from the public works department is a jerk – of course, he may think the same of you.

Photo: Ted Ostrowski, DRDC

To be successful, any exercise requires planning. Although a tabletop exercise might be conceived and executed within a few months, planning a full-scale exercise involving the response of apparatus and hands-on participation by personnel may require at least six months. Although this might seem challenging, especially for volunteer fire departments that may already have too much to do and too few resources – the alternative is to learn during an actual event when there may be a high price to pay for a less-than-stellar performance.

Remember too, that most exercise design will focus on a local disaster of some sort, but if the design is not executed properly, the exercise itself can become a real-world disaster, much worse than the one you attempted to simulate. Results could include injuries to participants, lack of critical resources, and confusion resulting from the community and other public safety agencies mistaking the exercise for the real thing. These types of problems, and many more like them, are preventable by using a simple 10-step method for exercise design.

This proven program has been used by local fire departments with a great deal of success. Planners are also reminded to provide refresher training prior to the exercise to better prepare participants for their roles and ensure that everyone is poised to achieve their assigned objectives.

Plan for Success
A key consideration of the 10-step method is that planners are encouraged to develop an exercise that is winnable. Anyone can design an exercise that can push first responders to the breaking point and beyond, yet a desirable exercise is one that is realistic, reinforces positive behavior, and leaves participants with a sense of accomplishment rather than failure.

  • Identify exercise goals. Is the exercise required by the EOP or some outside entity? Is it in response to a recent event that did not go well?
  • Identify stakeholders. What agencies and individuals would play a role during a real situation?
  • Develop performance objectives. What kinds of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) should be demonstrated?
  • Design a realistic scenario. Develop a scenario to include activities that will require agencies and individuals to ­demonstrate their capabilities.
  • Assign roles and responsibilities. Determine what equipment and personnel each participating agency will require.
  • Identify training needs. Determine if participants need training in the required KSAs identified earlier.
  • Develop a safety plan and site map. The safety plan should address real-world hazards and those related to exercise activities.
  • Develop an exercise schedule. The schedule should include estimated times for setup, start and finish, and major events during the scenario, including a postincident review.
  • Conduct a postincident review. This is best conducted in two phases, with one occurring immediately after the event and another several days later to allow participants time to compile notes and recommendations for improvements.
  • Prepare a summary document. This document includes all activities undertaken for the planning and execution of the exercise and helps avoid having to “reinvent the wheel” when preparing for the next exercise.

Steven M. De Lisi retired after a fire service career spanning 27 years that included serving as a regional training manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP) and most recently as the deputy chief for the Virginia Air Guard Fire Rescue. De Lisi is a hazardous materials specialist and continues to coordinate a statewide training program for the investigation of environmental crimes as an adjunct instructor for the VDFP.

For more info on Steven De Lisi’s book, Hazardous Materials Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response, visit http://store.penwellbooks.com/hamainsuinre.html
© FrontLine Security 2008