Hazmat in the Trenches: Deer in the Headlights

Over the years, as I would train new people, and even conduct the training for long-time team members I would frequently run into hazmat team personnel who had the proverbial appearance of the “deer in the headlights” look. I surmised this was for...


Over the years, as I would train new people, and even conduct the training for long-time team members I would frequently run into hazmat team personnel who had the proverbial appearance of the “deer in the headlights” look. I surmised this was for several reasons. Some people are just not interested in hazmat response, and I found they would soon exit the team at their earliest convenience. Some of them were merely in it for the extra pay incentive and after a few sweaty sessions in Level A suits, or after a hairy call or two, their true intentions were exposed and they would quit. Another reason for looking like a deer on the highway at night was that the myriad of information, and the things that need to be considered, was just too overwhelming for many people.

These people would more than likely hang around longer though, and they tended to follow others blindly, but they did what they were directed to do by others who “got it.” The last group who acquired the dazed-deer look usually got it from “analysis paralysis” or simply, information overload. This was easy to get because of the way most teams handle the task of research within the team environment. The following concepts are more general precursors as to why hazmat team personnel become blinded deer, along with ways to avoid this common hazmat team malady.

Avoid Teaching Formal Chemistry

Most hazmat teams believe that their team members need to have formal chemistry training. Consequently, many teams have had high school or college-level instructors teach full-length chemistry courses to their team. This is a colossal waste of time! My experience is that team members will endure the course, do their best on the final test, and then expunge everything they learned as soon as the course ends. I can attest that as soon as the word “chemistry” is muttered most of the hazmateers that are present drift into an “eyes-wide-open” state of sleep. Then, it is all downhill from there!

Simply stated, hazmat team members do not need to know anything about electrons, neutrons, protons, and atomic structure. Nor do they need to know about balancing equations, covalent or ionic reactions, or the duet or octet law. All of this only serves to complicate the issue and confuse most responders. Now, if responders come to the team with this education and training that is a good thing! But, it is surely a waste of time and money to insist that all team members have formal chemistry training.

What is needed is training on nomenclature with chemical compounds and then what the corresponding hazards are based on the chemical compound name. In the previously mentioned “analysis paralysis” affliction, what happens is that chemistry information confounds the researcher due to trying to figure out the components of the compound, the bonds that are formed, and the structural diagram of the compound. In 20 years of hazmat response, I have not needed to consider any of that chemistry information at a hazmat incident.

State of Confusion

Another common problem in research is that responders can get hung up on seeing an element’s name in the compound name. I have repeatedly observed responders do the following: in a compound name such as “potassium chloride” the focus would be that potassium is a water-reactive metal that can be almost explosive. Of course, this is not the case, because the elemental potassium has undergone an ionic transformation and is now in a fairly stable compound. Potassium chloride is a “salt” that is even used to salt food for human intake; hardly the explosive, water-reactive compound that the researcher identified. All of that formal chemistry only added to a state of confusion once the responder got to the field.

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