Take a good look around the next hazardous materials emergency you're on. We're not talking about a severed natural gas line or leaking saddle tank on a tractor trailer involved in an accident, but a working chemical emergency like a leaking rail car or an incident at a chemical facility. You'll see the entry team, the back-up team and personnel staffing the decon corridor. You'll also see, tucked away somewhere away from all the action, a person making some very difficult decisions. No, it's not the Incident Commander. It's someone the Incident Commander and the HazMat Team look to for information and guidance. That person is the Research Technician. Let's take a look at what the Research Technician does and some of the qualities necessary to be a good Research Technician.
First and foremost, the Research Technician (RT for short) gathers and interprets any available data on the chemical. This data may written in the form of Material Safety Data Sheets or Tier II Reports. It may also be oral communication between the RT and site personnel such as process operators, Safety Managers or other facility personnel. It may come from First Responders in the form of shipping papers, placards or container identification. In the case of an unknown, the RT may have to take and interpret whatever information is relayed from an entry or recon team. Determining what the product is or may be is the first step in mitigating the incident.
Now that the product has been determined, what exactly is it? What are its properties? What does it react with? What is it used for and what are its particular hazards to people or the environment? The RT analyzes the information found in such books as the Chemical Hazard Response Information System (CHRIS), NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, Merck Index, Hazardous Chemicals Desk Reference, Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards and Sax's Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials just to name a few as this library varies from team to team. Computer resources such as CAMEO (Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations), WISER (Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders), CHEMWATCH and the Chemical Reactivity Worksheet may also be consulted. Resources such as CAMEO can be of great assistance when the product is an unknown. What if you're involved with an incident where you have no paperwork or placards? What if all you have to go on is a physical description? The RT should be able to take this information and run a query in CAMEO. While this query may not be able to give you the exact product involved, it should narrow the possibilities down to the point where you can begin to make some decisions on how to begin mitigating the incident until more information can be obtained from the entry team or other sources. The RT presents this information to the entry team in particular and the rest of the team in general during the pre-entry briefing.
Once the product is known, what next? The RT determines the proper level of PPE based on the product and its hazards. Is SCBA required or will a respirator suffice? If a respirator will suffice, will an APR be satisfactory or will a PAPR be required? Are the cartridges on the respirator suitable for the product in question? If so, for how long? What kind of suit is required? Can turnout gear be used or is it going to be "Level A all the way"? What type of gloves will provide the best protection and how many layers will be worn? Are latex booties required over the boots? How long will the protective ensemble withstand the chemical exposure? All of these questions must be answered by the RT prior to the entry team suiting up.
Suppose the incident involves a gaseous material such as chlorine, sulfur dioxide or ammonia? How do we determine where the vapor cloud is going to travel? The answer lies in a weather station and the CAMEO/ALOHA/MARPLOT software suite available for free via Internet download. CAMEO provides information on the product. ALOHA plots the plume based on the size of the leak and weather conditions. MARPLOT plots the plume over the map of the affected area. If a weather station is not available on site to provide information such as wind direction and speed, barometric pressure and humidity, the RT must get this information either by consulting sources via the Internet, contacting a local news station's weather personnel or by consulting the local National Weather Service office. Keep in mind that the most accurate numbers come from the weather station on site (preferably on the HazMat rig itself) or nearby. There may be quite a difference in numbers obtained at the airport or at another location in your jurisdiction. Decisions on evacuation versus sheltering in place may be made based on the interpretation of this data. What are the dimensions of the area affected that will need to be evacuated or have the citizens shelter in place? Can maps be printed detailing this information based on streets, blocks or neighborhoods? These maps will greatly assist those personnel tasked with evacuating the affected residents. The RT needs to have a proficiency in not only computers, but these programs as well.
The RT is also going to be monitoring most, if not all of the radio traffic on the incident. If your entry team or HazMat Group operates on its own radio channel during the incident, the RT will be listening to that channel to monitor the air consumption of the entry team and keep track of what is going on inside of the Hot Zone to see if any new information is gathered regarding the product or products, containers involved, etc. The RT will also be monitoring the entry team to record air monitoring readings, especially if correction factors need to be taken into account in order to determine accurate readings. The entry team cannot be expected to remember the correction factors for every meter and individual products when the RT has this information at their finger tips for ease of reference. This channel is also the best way for the RT to communicate with the HazMat officers should they have any questions.
The RT may also monitor other channels being used on scene by other fire department units in case any questions should arise from the line companies. This may come into play if line companies are handling decon operations while the HazMat Team handles offensive actions inside the Hot Zone. Information regarding decon must be relayed to the personnel performing this function, especially when special precautions must be taken such as in the case of radioactive or water reactive materials where a dry decon must be performed. Since the RT is handling research, they will have access to information regarding signs and symptoms of chemical exposure in addition to medical treatments. This information may be relayed to EMS over their own channel should EMS be a separate service.
Who interfaces with off-site experts or other resources during the incident? What happens if questions are asked and answers are required that cannot be found in the materials carried on the HazMat rig or other resources are not readily available on site? The RT is usually the person calling CHEMTREC for initial guidance and consulting with others throughout the incident in order to gain the necessary information required by the HazMat Team, Incident Commander, Incident Safety Officer, Emergency Management, etc. Other resources that may be consulted include industry and government officials, subject matter experts or personal contacts that the RT may be able to depend upon in a time of need.
What is your margin for safety while making an entry into the Hot Zone? Do you have a set working time in the Hot Zone based on egress, ingress, decon and a safety factor? Who keeps track of the air consumption by the entry team and their time spent down range? For record keeping purposes, the RT will generally record the time the entry team went "on air", the time they entered and left the hot zone, when they entered decon and finally when they went "off air". There are computer programs out there that will automatically time stamp these events or they may be recorded manually on a legal pad. The RT may also record the results of medical monitoring conducted on entry and decon personnel prior to the start and at the conclusion of their assigned tasks.
How is your HazMat Team funded? Are you able to bill for your services through cost recovery? If so, it is usually a function of the RT to either create the bill or assist in creating it. This bill can be based on the number of companies (both line and HazMat) involved in the incident and the time they spent on scene, the number of Chief Officers and support staff actively engaged on scene and an itemized list of any materials used during the incident such as suits, gloves, tools, absorbent pads, etc. Effective documentation during the incident will make the task of calculating the bill much easier. It will also allow the bill to be defended should it be challenged by an insurance company or responsible party. The RT may also assist in drafting the after action incident report due to their involvement and record keeping capacity throughout the incident. Keep in mind that the bill and incident report may be used as evidence in possible legal actions later on. REMEMBER - If you didn't write it down, you didn't do it and it never happened!
So what qualities does a good RT possess? First and foremost, they must be adept at multi-tasking. It is not unusual for the RT to have a phone in one ear and a radio in the other while scrolling through a computer database and taking notes all at the same time. The RT must remain calm, cool and collected at all times and not become easily flustered by many people asking questions at the same time and demanding answers quickly. Computer literacy is also a must, not just in the programs themselves, but in troubleshooting the hardware as well should the system develop a problem. Your IT Help Desk may not be able to assist you on that 0300 call on the interstate when your printer stops working. The RT must also have a good working knowledge of the printed reference materials carried on the HazMat rig as different sources contain different types of information. This printed material also serves as a backup should your computer system suffer a catastrophic failure during the incident. Finally, the RT must be a well experienced HazMat Technician or Specialist in order to interpret the data found during the research process. Many books will have conflicting data, especially where numbers are concerned such as flash points, ignition temperatures, etc. What do you do when three different sources provide three different numbers for the flash point? This is where that experience and intuition developed by years of experience come into play. Good communications skills, both oral and written, are also essential for the RT. You may be required to translate technical terms from a MSDS or other source into language that people without a chemical or hazardous materials background can understand. Public speaking ability is also an asset as you will be talking with a variety of people including other First Responders, the public, elected officials, etc. The ability to write a clear and concise incident report will serve you well should the report become part of any legal proceedings later on regarding the incident, particularly if any actions taken by your HazMat Team are questioned.
The Research Technician function is certainly not the most glamorous a person can perform, but it is one of the most important functions on the HazMat Team. The decisions that the RT makes have life and death consequences, not only for fellow Team members and other First Responders, but for the general public as well. When assigned to this role, do not look at it as a demotion from the entry team or as someone doubting your abilities inside the Hot Zone. Instead, think of it as a promotion and take pride in the fact that your officer has the confidence in you to make those tough decisions regarding your fellow Team members. Always remember, it's about the Team, not about you.