Haz-mat Response

A tactic that can be carried out by firefighters at the operations level is to place containers where leaks occur. The object is to minimize environmental damage before the haz-mat response arrives. (Photos by author.)

Few firefighters will profess a love for hazardous materials (haz-mat) response, and many will proclaim that it has no place in the American fire service. They say that real firefighters fight the dragon only and little else matters. Drones of firefighters can be heard saying that hazmat is not for them and that it is a bastard child or topic. If a local haz-mat response team exists, it may even be labeled “Supermen with suits,” “glow worms,” or the “mop-and-glow” group. Yet, truth be told, hazardous materials are present at virtually every call we go to in this first response business. For the sake of a dose of reality, here are a few common, everyday incidents where hazmat lurks in the background:

  • Vehicle accidents: flammable liquids and gases, combustible metals, air bag explosives, electrical hazards, hidden cargos, and legally transported cargos. Specifically gasoline, diesel fuel, ethanol, hydrogen, natural gas, propane, magnesium, sodium azide, battery acid, portable methamphetamine labs, red phosphorous, anhydrous ammonia, and many others. Especially watch out for the extremely volatile Bakken crude oil shipments.
  • Odor complaints: toxic vapors and gases, respiratory hazards, nondetected hazards, and health effects from exposures. Specifically, solvents, cooking spices, methamphetamine labs, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and many others.
  • Fire alarms: source of alarm, industrial materials, airborne hazards, magnetic hazards, ionizing hazards, high-pressure hazards, pyrophorics, hearing hazards, hot and cold hazards. Specifically vapors and gases, solvents, air-reactive gases, ammonium nitrate, asbestos, lead, MRIs, radiation, hot industrial processes, cryogenics.
  • Structure fires: toxic smoke and fire by-products. Specifically carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, benzene, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, polychlorinated biphenyls, and many others.
  • EMS response: viruses, bacteria, fungi, other microorganisms, and bloodborne pathogens. Specifically ebola, Epstein-Barr virus, Avian flu, SARS, HIV, hepatitis, meningitis, anthrax, botulinum toxin, ricin, and many others.

Threat Awareness

Situational awareness is a priority in our modern world, and the prudent firefighter will keep in mind all of the above and protect himself properly to avert needless exposures. Sadly, this has not been the case in numerous recent cases across the country. We lost a brother at a simple dumpster fire near Kiel, Wisconsin, in 2009 involving a fire and explosion of water-reactive metals. We lost 12 brothers in West, Texas, because of a lack of awareness of hazardous materials and its deadly consequences at a large fertilizer fire and explosion in 2013. We have lost hundreds of brothers and sisters in the fire service as a result of chronic exposure to carcinogens just in the past several years.1

Numerous studies show that firefighters have increased rates of certain cancers compared to the general population. This is because of our increased risk of exposure resulting from the types of calls we encounter. The International Association of Fire Fighters reported that firefighters are six times more likely to become injured at a haz-mat event than at a structure fire. All of this points to the fact that our guard is not up when it comes to safe and proper response to all of our calls, including haz-mat calls, and our lack of awareness is killing us.

While haz-mat response training has been a requirement for new firefighters for many years, what is lacking nationally is ongoing, refresher training. From experience, haz-mat response training seems to have a “one-and-done” mentality in many firefighters’ minds. But this is far from the reality that is needed. In the haz-mat response law of the land, called the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard, and published in 1989 by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), refresher training is required on an annual basis.2 Haz-mat response is not a very sexy topic, but if it is presented appropriately, such as not in an annual training format, it can be easily retained by responders.

The Secret to Effective Haz-mat Response Training

HAZWOPER, found in OSHA 29 CFR 1910.120, states that “all personnel who have been trained shall receive annual refresher training of sufficient content and duration to maintain their competencies, or they shall demonstrate their competency at least yearly.”3 Because haz-mat topics are evolving just as other first responder topics, it behooves trainers to touch on the haz-mat topics frequently rather than once per year. What is needed, then, is a new way that integrates haz-mat response training into other day-to-day fire response training. In this way, responders seem to accept hazmat more because it becomes an integral part of their beloved fire response training. Embedded hazmat is the key!

Remember: Haz-mat topics include antiterrorism information, so integrate that information on a regular basis.

Here are a few succinct fire response lessons plans where haz-mat topics can be intertwined:

  • Vehicle accidents: It is common practice to employ at least one hoseline for vehicle accidents, and ideally it should flow a foam solution to best combat flammable liquid fires (if that is part of the scenario). The haz-mat portion here is to impress on responders that ordinary water will not work because of liquid polarity differences between water and hydrocarbons. Further, discuss the appropriate concentration of the foam and foam application techniques. Transportation incidents provide a good opportunity to discuss the U.S. Department of Transportation label and placarding system along with a review of the Emergency Response Guidebook.
  • Odor complaints: Get responders into the practice of using their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to avoid personal exposures along with monitoring equipment to assist in characterizing the atmosphere. It should be standard practice to approach all flammable liquid and gas investigations with full turnout gear [structural fire protective clothing (SFPC)], SCBAs, and monitors. Cover your own standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for these investigations and then work in use of the monitors. Don’t forget to discuss vapor densities and where to look for certain types of vapors and gases.
  • Fire alarms: Integrating hazmat for this topic should involve your preemergency plans for facilities in your district. Cover processes and their hazards for specific locations such as special hazards including radiation, pressurized liquids and gases, heat, cold, and magnetics. Fixed facility marking systems and fire code requirements can be included in the lesson at this point. Responders should be reminded to keep their eyes open for signs of terrorism on all alarms.
  • Structure fires: In addition to discussing and practicing your SOGs for structural firefighting; discuss and employ full protective equipment (SFPC and SCBA); minimize exposures; work in safe environments after extinguishment and during overhaul; use monitoring equipment during overhaul; and conduct decontamination of everything that was in the fire zone, including all personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • EMS response: Universal precautions, including PPE, remain the best method of reducing exposure to biological materials. But you should also focus on looking for clues as to what hazards may be present at every scene. Teach personnel how to isolate patients to minimize their own exposures through body substance isolation and scene control. And, once again, incorporate decontamination into the learning session.

Incorporating Hazmat

You should get the idea by looking through the above lessons on how to incorporate haz-mat topics into regular training topics. Your personnel may not even be aware that you did so, but this is a way to comply with national mandates pertaining to annual haz-mat refreshers. Be sure to document all haz-mat training topics and session data to produce whenever OSHA knocks on your door. You may do so in such a subtle way that the haz-mat portion becomes appealing to all of your fire personnel present-maybe even to the point that they consider hazmat part of every response they go to and haz-mat response is a bastard child no more!


1. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Study of Cancer Among U.S. Fire Fighters, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/firefighters/ffCancerStudy.html.

2. Peterson, David, “Hazardous Materials Response: Know Your Limitations,” Fire Engineering, March 2000. http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/print/volume-153/issue-3/features/features/hazardous-materials-response-know-your-limitations.html.

3. United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration, 1910.120, Hazardous waste operations and emergency response, https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=9765