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Q&A: A hazmat expert talks training, detection tools and response

How fire departments handle hazmat calls and what the fire service can do better


Chris Weber, a firefighter and hazmat trainer, says training, standard operating procedures and the right equipment are the keys to good hazmat response.

photo/Chris Weber

The following is paid content sponsored by Smiths Detection.

By FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

Chris Weber has served as a firefighter and hazardous materials technician for more than 20 years and holds a doctorate in biological chemistry. He is also an applications specialist for Smiths Detection and provides hazmat training nationwide.

In this conversation, Weber discusses trends in hazmat response and the training and tools firefighters need to better handle hazmat incidents and decontamination.

What kind of hazmat incidents do firefighters usually encounter?

The most common incidents are accidents involving the transportation or industrial use of large production volume materials. About 60 to 70 percent of those involve flammable liquids such as gasoline, and about 20 to 30 percent involve corrosives such as anhydrous ammonia.

But then some of the really big, scary issues that are becoming more common are illegal drugs. The fentanyl epidemic has law enforcement officers, firefighters and paramedics touching contaminated surfaces and becoming intoxicated to the point of having to receive the antidote naloxone or going into respiratory failure.

Chemical warfare agents and counterterrorism are also on the forefront. The incidence is very low, but the impact of those is quite high versus a gasoline or a diesel fuel spill at a gas station or an anhydrous ammonia leak in a farm community. Those last two are fairly common and folks typically train for them and have the appropriate equipment, so the risks tend to be lower.

What are the most common mistakes during hazmat response and decontamination, and what can firefighters do to correct them?

Back 20 or 30 years ago, a lot of departments would just wash gasoline or any hazardous material down into the ditch and call it a day. Luckily, that’s changed.

I think two of the biggest problems folks have are not knowing the appropriate decon method or solution and verifying that decon has even been performed properly with the appropriate electronic equipment, whether that’s an air monitor, like a photo ionization detector, or something more advanced, like checking a decon solution with a GC/MS tool like the GUARDION to see if the product has been completely removed.

Most materials can be removed with soap and water. That’s why that is considered to be the universal decon solution. But there are specialty cases where that decontamination method isn’t completely effective, and teams make the mistake of just assuming their decon worked – and then bad things happen.

For example, you decon a patient and tell the ambulance crew that they’ve been decontaminated, and then halfway to the hospital, the ambulance crashes because the patient was off-gassing a nasty pesticide that wasn’t completely removed with soap and water.

What tools do you recommend to detect unseen/odorless contaminants?

That’s really where having the right tools in your toolbox is key. Initial responders will use air monitoring as they approach the scene to find out where the hot zone is, where the chemical is or is moving toward, and where the cold zone is, where there’s no contamination.

Identifiers like the HazMat ID Elite infrared spectrometer or the ACE-ID Raman spectrometer are used if there’s an abandoned chemical or to verify whatever was spilled. They are often used in the hot zone, but responders might grab a sample and take it to the warm zone to analyze it there instead.

If I’m looking at decontamination, I could use a photo ionization detector to detect gross contamination and then verify that it’s gone, or I can use GC/MS and analyze what’s in my rinse water. The final rinse water shouldn’t have the contaminant, whereas the original rinse water should.

What’s on the horizon for detection equipment to help firefighters better identify hazardous materials? What role do you see drones playing at hazmat scenes?

Certainly different technologies are being explored right now for standoff distances. There’s also an ease of use trend compared even to 10 years ago. The software has gotten more robust and easier to use. Mixture analysis software has improved dramatically over the years, as well as making the devices smaller and lighter. Combining different technologies with powerful software that delivers a single, accurate and complete answer will be the next frontier.

Drones and the information they provide are becoming a bigger asset to hazmat response, first for getting eyes on the problem as a surveillance tool without actually sending people into harm’s way. Second, people are starting to put detection equipment on drones, like air monitors.

Is the ERG field guide the best way for firefighters to quickly identify hazardous materials?

For the first five to maybe 15 minutes of an incident, it is probably the fastest, most accurate way to get quick information on what to do. But it quickly loses its punch as you get further into hazmat response because there’s just not very much specific information.

A backup would be the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards. That has chemical and physical property information, which the ERG doesn’t. There are fewer chemicals listed, but now you have flashpoints, water solubility, permissible exposure limits and much more specific information.

One of my favorites is Wiley’s Hazardous Chemicals Desk Reference. That has almost 6,000 chemicals in it, and there also are electronic resources like WISER and CAMEO.

Do you see hazmat response becoming so specialized and expensive that departments will have to outsource it?

Outsourcing already does happen. Most fire departments don’t do the cleanup. A private contractor does that. Fire departments just do the emergency response. I don’t see emergency response ever being outsourced because contractors can’t mobilize fast enough and the costs are too high to keep people at the ready if they get multiple calls at once.

It’s just a question of how much gets outsourced. When do you call in the cleanup contractor? There are no public hazmat teams I know of that actually do the disposal, because now we’re getting into a whole different ballgame of transporting hazardous waste. That’s always a private contractor, and I don’t see that changing.

What are your top three strategies to prepare for successful hazmat response?

I would say training, good planning and standard operating procedures, and then having the right equipment are the top three keys to good hazmat response. Training is No. 1 – because you can have the best equipment, but if people aren’t familiar with the SOPs and how to use the equipment, you’re not going to get anywhere.