Training for Operations in the Hot Zone

Staying safe in the “hot zone” means knowing what it is

By Jason Hoevelmann
Published Sunday, September 15, 2013 | From the November 2013 Issue of FireRescue

I can remember attending a hazardous materials course very early in my fire service career where the discussion turned to the “hot zone.” It was described, at that time, as the area with the most potential to do harm to us as responders and to victims. Some years after that, I had an instructor describe the hot zone as the area that includes an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) situation. Again, not much has changed. What both classes had in common was describing the hot zone, but they paid little attention to how to contain the hot zone or how to establish safe working areas on calls other than hazmat calls.

Having more experience and training under my belt now, I teach about hot zones in many classes. These areas are not necessarily IDLH environments, but they are the area that poses the greatest risk of injury to our firefighters and victims. Having said that, there is no magic formula or number of feet that determines where a hot zone starts or ends. With some common sense, however, and some training and experience, we can establish and control the hot zones during our incidents.

All Types of Hot Zones
Hot zones are most commonly associated with hazmat calls. And for these calls, the hot zones are usually based on exposure limits, the type of product in relationship to the PPE of the responding crews, and evacuation distances. The information provided in the “Emergency Response Guidebook” helps us manage these events—to an extent. In my mind, it’s one of the easiest hot zones to establish and control because nobody wants to deal with the “mop and glow” stuff.

Every incident we respond to involves a legitimate hot zone. Some are more obvious, and others are not so easy to define. The incident commander (IC) and safety officer need to understand the scope of every call and initiate boundaries to keep responders, victims and bystanders safe from potentially hazardous operations.

Staying safe in the hot zone means knowing what the hot zone is and what hazards are in it. Every call is different, and not all hot zones are on active incidents. An example: hose testing. Charged hoselines with high pressures in them create a potential hazard to those who are working around them. If those lines burst, the results could be fatal. As such, we should set up a hot zone to decrease the amount of activity around the hose, keeping the public out of the hazard area, and not only creating perimeter boundaries, but also setting guidelines on required PPE and equipment.

Safety in the Hot Zone
Here some simple ways to ensure safety in any type of hot zone.
Building Fires: The scope of the fire will determine the exact area of the hot zone, but it may be beyond the fire building due to smoke and other hazards. As the IC or safety officer, you may need to redefine the hot zone as the incident progresses.

Vehicle Rescues: The dangers are high-powered hydraulic tools, unstable cars, debris, other traffic and downed power lines, to name a few. Keep unprotected bystanders and emergency personnel away by using apparatus or barrier tape and cones.

Vehicle Fires: Same rules associated with the vehicle accident. Additionally, due to smoke obscuring the roadway, you may need to include that in the hot zone and stop traffic. Don’t discount leaking fuel, projectiles and other possible hazards.

Technical Rescues: These can be tricky because the obvious signs of a hot zone that are associated with crumpled metal and smoke and fire are not present. These are situations that require some background in the hazards related to each type of incident. Air quality is going to be a critical factor for confined space and trench. Any high-angle rescue needs to establish perimeters that include the necessity of rescuers being attached to a safety while in the hot zone.

Water Rescues: This is a type of technical rescue but is one that can be very deceiving. Anyone entering the water is obviously in the hot zone, but we want to include portions of the banks as well. We don't want rescuers on the banks falling in with no protection or training. Be diligent in the safety of your support for the rescuers in the water.

Hazmat: This is dependent on the type of call and product. Use established guides and perimeters to set up your zones and enforce them.

Training Evolutions: It’s prudent to train the way we will operate. Don’t get lazy with establishing hot zones and operating appropriately inside of them on training drills and evolutions. People tend to let their guard down during training and that’s when bad things happen. Follow the same guidelines for actual incidents for your training.

Other Key Factors
This list is by no means all encompassing, but it gives a brief outline for establishing and working in hot zones. In addition to these key points, NFPA 1521: Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer suggests (in 6.1.9 and in Appendix 6.1.9) that all “control zones” be clearly identified and communicated to all personnel operating on and near all incidents.

Some other key factors when staying in hot zones include:
•    Wear ALL of the appropriate personal protective equipment.
•    Be trained at the appropriate level for the incident and only operating at that level.
•    Set up perimeter zones early and adjust them as the incident dictates.
•    When perimeters are established, clearly identify and communicate them so that everyone is aware.
•    Don’t take shortcuts.
•    As with any incident, get a look at the “big picture,” have some tactical patience and don’t rush in (this is especially critical for technical rescue incidents).
•    Ask for help—if the incident is large, get help early to assist in enforcing the hot zone operations.

In Sum
Remember, we should train is every day, and we need to train the way we work. Be prudent and don't be afraid to regroup and make changes if things aren't going well. Be safe and train hard.

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