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...


What is needed is training that is geared toward the compound’s chemical and physical hazards based on its name. Potassium chloride is a salt compound that is water soluble and caustic when wet. It is also non-flammable and does not form a gas. All of this is based on the compound and can be derived from its nomenclature through a very simple training session. For emergency response, there are very few hazards that need to be researched. Hazards such as flashpoint, boiling point, vapor pressure, water solubility, vapor density, and flammable range are some of the important parameters to research. Application of that data to the field, with current environmental conditions considered, is then the key as far as response actions. Conversely, responders do not need to know the latent heat of vaporization, what the compound does to snail darters in water, or other non-emergency parameters, as examples. Yet, some teams still insist that a lengthy, multi-page research document, loaded with non-pertinent information, needs to be completed at each incident. This is sheer lunacy!

Research is never ending

The last deer-in-the-headlight affliction occurs because the “research” role goes on and on. In this day of information availability, the tendency is to continue to research as long as possible for more, or new, information. This is because our information sources are endless and readily available. We can now go online and retrieve information from subscription sources, governmental sources, and chemical manufacturing sources, all at remote locations. As reams of information are printed out, the research person may even highlight pertinent information, and send it on to decision makers, who in turn get overwhelmed due to the volume of information. This is pure insanity and few teams overcome the problem.

There are really only two things need to be done. The first one is to research before the incident occurs and record the important items, recalling the information when needed at the time of the emergency. A form can be filed, either electronically or in hard copy, that records the important chemical and physical properties, the suits, boots, and gloves that are needed, and the recommended control measures for the actual handling of the release. Pre-information sources can be researched through the local LEPC, emergency government, and local chemical companies. Since mostly bulk chemicals are transported to and through each community, the list should be no secret, and most likely these common community chemicals will be your next emergency. Secondly, doing this pre-information recording also frees up the research person to do other tasks at emergencies.

Certainly, there are other hazmat team dysfunctions to address, but, tackling the above will help in getting, and retaining, the right people for the team. If done correctly, training can become more efficient and valuable funds can be spent elsewhere. The end result is that you’ll have less “deer in the headlights” personnel and more who’ll perform their tasks confidently and comfortably, and even become long-time, productive team members.

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” -W. Edwards Deming

DAVID PETERSON, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a 31-year veteran fire officer. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and has a B.S. degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University. David is also a graduate student in leadership with Grand Canyon University. View all of David's articles here and the articles he co-authors with Joseph L. Krueger here. You can reach David by e-mail at dcnkm@charter.net.