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How to save more lives in the hazmat hot zone

Common questions about when firefighters in bunker gear and SCBA can make a save and when to wait for the hazmat team


“By making hazmat too specialized, we create an environment that says it is someone else’s problem,” writes Ambrose.

Photo/Brooke Herbert of The Oregonian via MCT

By Phil Ambrose

When can first-arriving firefighters on a hazmat scene enter the hot zone in full turnout gear, and when should they call for the hazmat team?

Knowing when to stay out will save firefighters’ lives, and knowing when to go in will save civilian lives.

The following questions and answers are designed to help crews navigate the gray area of hazmat go/no-go decisions – questions and scenarios that commonly arise during hazmat training.

What’s the risk of playing it safe and waiting for the hazmat team?

Obviously if there are victims in a toxic environment, we want to get them out as fast as possible. And the longer a hazardous situation is allowed to go unchecked, the more likely it will grow. In metropolitan areas, it won’t take that long for most hazmat teams to deploy and arrive on scene. In suburban or rural areas where the team may be a collection of firefighters from different departments, you could be looking at 20, 40 or 60 minutes before they arrive, maybe longer. A lot can go wrong in an hour.

How do we reframe the incident scene?

A working fire is a hazmat scene. Modern products of combustion are highly toxic and contain numerous chemicals. The environment can be extremely challenging due to heat, low visibility and fire conditions – and that environment is likely to get worse before it gets better. Nonetheless, firefighters quickly assess the conditions and victim survivability and make entry, confident the SCBA will give fresh breathing air in an IDLH environment. So, why do we tend to freeze when hazmat is involved? Often the answer is poor recognition and poor training.

What’s a good example of when to go rather than wait for hazmat?

Chemical suicides come to mind. In 2015, a California man’s roommate called 911 because he smelled chemicals and found a suicide note. A hazmat team found the man barricade inside a bathroom. By the time they entered, the man was deceased next to two propane barbeque grills. The victim intentionally created a lethal environment by filling close quarters with carbon monoxide.

If the roommate had smelled smoke and reported a fire, the responders would have masked up and made entry. A “routine” room-and-contents fire will produce deadly conditions with many more chemicals than those found in this suicide scenario. So, was waiting for the hazmat team the right call?

What’s the fix for this?

Better training for first-arriving firefighters and, just as importantly, first-arriving officers. Most firefighters and officers don’t want to be hazmat experts. I get that; they don’t need to be. They need to be experts on things like air monitoring and the protective capabilities of their turnout gear and SCBA.

Again, we train like this all the time for structure fires. Hazmat seems to have this weird, mysterious aura around it that we have to get past. It means doing evolutions where firefighters monitor the air, assess the threat and practice making a grab or containing a leak.

What problem keeps you up at night?

The fact that firefighters and hazmat teams are ill-prepared for deadly disasters. PowerPoints, war stories and “check the boxes” training won’t cut it when there’s a real incident that can claim firefighter and civilian lives. We need to do better than the obligatory annual training. I worry that victims will die because firefighters are paralyzed to act due to lack of preparation and, likewise, I worry that firefighters will die because they are ill-prepared when they do act.

How will hazmat response change in the coming years?

We are experiencing a wave of technology across the fire service. In a way, hazmat was more prepared since we were already a battery-operated section, if you will. Much of the new tech in our industry is very vendor-driven. I believe the newer generation of firefighters and company officers will embrace lots of the new tech. But, they are not stupid and they grew up with tech – if it doesn’t work, they won’t use it.

Tomorrow’s training will still require that hands-on component. A hazmat leak will still require a human to apply a clamp or turn a dial. Even with drones and robots, a human will need to interpret meter data, make decisions and operate that technology. As the dust settles on new tech, teams will still carry out much of what we do now, but be better at using and deploying tech.

Eliminating injury and death for first responders will require consistent, high-quality training. The past has taught us that technology is best when used as a tool, not a crutch. That will probably hold true for future hazmat response.

What do you see in the hazmat world that gives you the most concern?

Hazmat is too technical and remains specialized. Hazmat is everywhere; fire is hazmat. The rule-of-thumb approach was to say, “Hey, we are too close to the problem, let’s move away.” As first responders, we are the ones who signed up to fix the problem. By making hazmat too specialized, we create an environment that says it is someone else’s problem.

The only way to address this is consistent and quality training in a hands-on environment. That’s not sitting in a classroom listening to a near-retiree tell war stories. It is getting out and performing life-saving tasks and improving skills. It is about getting the company officers and incident commanders trained to make good decisions on hazmat related calls – that too, is done through consistent, meaningful training.

What do you see in the hazmat world that gives you the greatest sense of optimism?

The younger generation embracing technology and their desire to learn and improve. It falls on all of us who have been in this business to not only ensure they have the skills to succeed, but also the values and work ethic of being a life-long learner. It also falls on us to ensure they have the space to push boundaries and learn. I’m also optimistic that their energy and fresh-eyed approach can influence how old “hazmatters” like myself learn, think and act. Youth can push and mentor the old as much as the experienced can guide the novice. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and I’m optimistic the hazmat world gets that.

About the author

Phil Ambrose is a battalion chief who oversees a 911 center in Southern California. During his more than 25 years as a firefighter, he cut his fire service leadership teeth on hazmat and training. He frequently teaches at conferences on when first-arriving firefighters on a hazmat call should call for the hazmat team, and when they can enter the hot zone in full turnout gear. Ambrose launched HazSim to train firefighters how to use their gas-detection and air-monitoring meters. In the current iteration of the training tool, participants get a handheld device that replicates a meter, with readings on the device controlled by a tablet, prompting firefighters to react to the readings just like they would on a real call.