FDIC 2019 Quick Take: Hazmat incidents and figure skating

Technical execution is only half the battle in how your hazmat incident management will be judged after the incident is mitigated

INDIANAPOLIS —  Given the risks of a hazmat emergency response operation, the incident commander’s ability to critically and effectively apply a risk-based response methodology provides the foundation for a safe response.

In a session titled “The Eight-Step Process for Managing Hazmat Incidents” at FDIC, Gregory Noll, CSP, CEM, program manager, South Central (PA) Regional Task Force, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, provided a framework for the tactical management of hazardous materials and special operations incidents. 

Key quotes on hazmat management

The incident commander’s ability to critically and effectively apply a risk-based response methodology provides the foundation for a safe hazmat response.
The incident commander’s ability to critically and effectively apply a risk-based response methodology provides the foundation for a safe hazmat response. (Photo/DoD)

Here are some of Noll’s quotes that stood out from his presentation on hazmat management.

  • “What might be the right answer today might not be the right answer tomorrow based on the situation and the associated risks.”
  • “Working in hazmat in the 80s was a living, learning laboratory.”
  • “Experience is nothing more than surviving your mistakes.”
  • “It’s a lot more than coming home from the dance, its coming home from the dance and living another 20, 30, 40, 50 years of a productive life.”

Top takeaways on safely managing a hazmat incident

1. Defining success in a hazmat mission

There are two scoring categories in figure skating: technical merit and artistic expression. Hazmat incidence response is judged in the same manner, Noll noted.

Technical merit is straightforward. Did the skater fall down or execute the perfect triple axle? Did the hazmat response team mitigate the problem?

Artistic expression is not so cut and dry. This portion of the score measures a skater’s fluidity, music choice and choreography. In the hazmat world, this relates to how we manage the external impacts of the incident, including:

  • Media relations
  • Community involvement
  • Transparency
  • Communication to stakeholders

“You marry those two points together to get the final grade,” Noll explained. If you get an A or a B in technical merit, but a C or D in managing external impact, it’s viewed as a bad response. He used the example of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Despite a technically sound response in harsh conditions, what people remember from this incident is the images of oil-soaked birds and wildlife.

If you are the incident commander, you can do everything right from a technical perspective, but if you don’t manage everything on the artistic side, your mission is going to be viewed as a failure. “Perceptions are reality,” Noll underscored.

2. Steps to mitigate a hazmat incident

Noll provided an 8-step approach to managing a hazmat incident:

  1. Site Management and control
  2. Identify the problem
  3. Information management and resource coordination
  4. Hazard assessment and risk evaluation
  5. Select protective clothing and equipment
  6. Implement response objectives
  7. Decon and cleanup operations
  8. Terminate the emergency

He noted this is not a linear process. You need to be preparing for decon while donning PPE, and information management and resource coordination is an ongoing aspect of the response. These are flexible guidelines, rather than a rigid rule, that should expand as the scope and magnitude of a hazmat incident evolve. The key is to provide a consistent management structure, he said.

3. Identifying a dysfunctional hazmat incident

Noll confirmed that the adage “the first 10 minutes determine how the next hour will go” is apt in a hazmat environment, as is “the first hour will determine the next eight.” If things go wrong in the beginning (e.g., people are injured or contaminated), you then need to focus on fixing the problem that’s been created, rather than mitigate the original incident.

He asked the audience for signs of a dysfunctional incident scene, which include:

  • Freelancing
  • A lack of clear objectives
  • A loss of control
  • An expanding incident
  • Maydays

How do you fix a dysfunctional response? Go back to the basics, Noll urged. Pull people out of the problem, and establish a perimeter and control zones. Additionally, establish the playing field for the players based on their experience and level of PPE.

4. Firefighter safety in a hazmat environment

Noll identified the three ways firefighters get injured in a hazmat response:

  1. Lack of training and understanding the basics. Remember the basics; return to the 8 steps.
  2. Use of PPE and related equipment. Understand that heat stress can be a bigger concern than chemical exposure.
  3. Decision-making errors related to the risk-evaluation process. You’re not coming in at scene 1 of the incident as hazmat, Noll noted. First, ask “How did we get here?” Then, evaluate if and how you can make the situation better.

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