Here is a question for all of you out there that are a member of a HazMat Team or a HazMat Instructor (or both). How many times have you come across someone, either on the line or in one of your classes that says something like "I'd like to join HazMat but..."? Sound familiar? What have some of their reasons been? They're no good at chemistry? They could never get into a Level A suit? They're not smart enough? The list goes on and on. These are all valid concerns on their part, but they are also wrong. That said, just what kind of qualities does it take to be a successful member of a HazMat Team?
The following are just some of the qualities, abilities and attributes that are required for membership on a Hazardous Materials Team:
Team Player Attitude - While the fire service is based on crews and teamwork, this is especially important on a HazMat Team. You simply can't be on the Entry Team all the time getting your picture in the paper. There are too many other areas that need to be staffed, such as Decon, Research, Back-Up Team, Logistics, etc. No one can do it all on their own, regardless of what they think. The ideal HazMat Technician fits in with the rest of the team, follows the chain of command as opposed to freelancing and is ready, willing and able to get in, get dirty and get the job done, regardless of their assigned task.
Willingness To Learn - It is impossible to know everything about all facets of a HazMat response. The field is simply too large and complex. Know-It-Alls tend to know less than they think they do and may end up getting someone hurt, or worse. Don't make this mistake and assume you know everything just because you just received your HazMat Technician certification.
Science / Technical Background - You certainly don't have to be a PhD in Organic Chemistry to be on a HazMat Team, but some knowledge of chemistry is desirable. This can be a coursework background in high school or college chemistry or a Chemistry of Hazardous Materials course. Lab experience certainly isn't a requirement, but it helps to know what might happen if Chemical A mixes with Chemical B.
Pride - A HazMat Team is a Special Team, like a USAR or Dive Rescue Team. A person should be able to take pride in their unit and their equipment. If a firefighter can take care of a regular Engine Company and its equipment, why should we expect them to care about a HazMat Unit and all of its equipment when the truck is usually bigger and the amount of equipment is so much larger? The answer is we can't and they won't, so they have no business being on a HazMat Team. This doesn't imply that the HazMat Technician is an egotist, just someone who takes care of their unit and equipment.
Dedication - The HazMat Team member must be dedicated to the Team. This means going above and beyond just being a regular firefighter. In many departments, the HazMat Team is not a dedicated unit, but staffed by firefighters who respond to everyday emergencies as well. This additional duty may or may not result in additional compensation. This means training on HazMat topics in addition to Fire/Rescue topics. In order to maintain proficiency in all areas, this often means training at nights and on weekends. Only those dedicated to the program will go above and beyond in order to succeed.
Analytical - HazMat incidents don't always fit the norm. What do we do if we have a leak that none of our kits can patch? What happens when Plan A fails and Plan B isn't working like it should? The ideal Technician doesn't panic, but steps back, takes an analytical approach by looking at the entire incident and comes up with a solution by thinking outside of the box.
Experience - A HazMat Team is no place for a rookie just out of Recruit School. A HazMat incident often requires split second decisions made under extreme pressure. While the same can be said about a fire ground, a HazMat Technician should gain this decision making experience on the fire ground and then transfer into a HazMat Team. The experience gained prior to joining HazMat provides discipline, sound judgment and maturity.