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9 steps to safer initial hazmat response

Following these steps will make awareness-level firefighters safe and effective when first on a hazmat scene

Hazardous materials is one of the most detailed and intensive response categories you will ever experience as a firefighter. A verified hazardous materials response is a labor-intensive and resource-demanding critical incident potentially affecting large amounts of people and geography.

Even with the advent of specialized teams — hazmat trailers and sophisticated identification and mitigation tools — firefighters are still finding themselves exposed to undue risk when such expert response is delayed or non-existent.

A fire or vehicle crash is in our wheelhouse of skills and support. But exactly how the “ethyl-methyl bad stuff” spill is resolved successfully is a low-probability high-skills tactical progression.

The amount of information, equipment and training needed to mitigate such incidents is simply too much for most moderate or small departments to navigate effectively. But there are steps we can take as first responders regardless of the situation encountered.

Initial hazmat response steps

  1. Isolate area
  2. Control access
  3. Establish command and communications
  4. Establish emergency decontamination
  5. Identify the materials labels and placards properties and characteristics
  6. Identify product container integrity
  7. Identify product amount
  8. Confirm formal hazmat response (timeline and equipment)
  9. Determine staging locations and full decon setup — warm zone entry and exit

Regardless of the product or its location, isolation and restricted access — upwind and uphill are the first order of business. Evacuating the immediate and adjacent areas, establishing isolation zones through access control and using the Emergency Response Guide throughout the initial response are invaluable actions regardless of the level of threat. To accomplish this on scene, coordination with law enforcement, public works and EMS is a top priority.

Without proper documentation, initial product identification will be wrong. It never fails. Whether it is a nitrate or a nitrite, makes a huge difference in threat levels and correspondingly in response parameters. The chemical properties of one acid over another could be polar opposites — one floating high above the valley, while another sits on the ground in a slow-moving mist.

Civilian reports, while well-intentioned, are subject to error. Described as a “powder” by a well-meaning resident, the product is actually in granular form changing its hazard characteristics. What is reported as a fire is actually a fog of unstable and rapidly spreading product. What was relayed as a red sign is actually orange.

Command and Communicate

The next step is to establish formal on-site command and direct that a reference library begin to research the incident.

Simple information seen from a distance, like carrier name on the side of a trailer, description of vehicle, condition of material (in the box, leaking liquid, material on the ground, etc.), as well as any labels and placards observed, when combined with detailed reference materials can contribute quickly and effectively in determining the product and more importantly its potential to do harm.

Next, establish a communications plan. Confirm that all authorities having jurisdiction are being notified and that appropriate resources are activated. Get your operation channels formalized as well as a timeline of arrivals and accountability for any EOC or ICS strategy initiated outside your initial response authority.

While it may be frustrating to not enter the scene, especially when there are confirmed injuries and the potential for fire, remind yourself and your fellow firefighters that you are the eyes and ears of this incident. Mitigation without adequate resources and support is simply not an option.

Use the resources you have on scene to facilitate progress in identification and support services. While you may be an excellent firefighting crew, you are not a hazmat team. Without proper training and protection, your risk/benefit ratio in entering a hazmat incident is off the charts.

Exception to the rule

Saving a viable life is the only exception to a no-entry policy even in the world of hazmat. But without proper training and PPE, the human potential for disaster is at dangerous, if not lethal, levels.

A simple cache of inexpensive hazmat-related gear combined with basic response training, will not only give you more personal protection in securing the scene and encountering the unexpected, but will definitely extend your initial on-scene capabilities.

With enough duct tape, a $12 dollar Tyvek suit, nitrile or latex gloves, bunker boots plus SCBA and you have Level B protection. This is more than enough to initiate a rescue just outside the hot zone for someone who has left the incident or is removed from the product. With a Tyvek suit under your bunker gear, you go from a Level C/D, incapable of any hazmat interaction, to a Level B rescue team in the event of an ignition threat.

Directing civilians toward you and your emergency decon set-up can minimize contamination consequences and speed up rescue and evacuation. A decon and an area of patient isolation can be quickly established with a little planning and a few makeshift items such as privacy curtains, warm clothing or blankets. Make sure your emergency decon with pre-connect and catch basin tarp is set up in a timely fashion for all those exiting the warm zone.

In addition to medical attention, the initial directive for such action is for civilian containment and control. Answering questions and making an occasional phone call while corralling civilians goes a long way in establishing command over the incident and its victims.

The key to an appropriate hazmat response is to subscribe to a particular set of tactical responses, standardized in their approach and straightforward in their application. If these basic tactical criteria are met, initial first responder encounters with hazardous materials will be safe and successful.

Hazmat Cache

  • ERG book: Available through the Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The International Association of Fire Chiefs has produced a video to explain how to use the ERG.
  • Binoculars
  • Wind speed indicator
  • Compass
  • Maps, pre-incident plans and reference materials
  • Tyvek suits, nitrile or latex gloves for decon
  • Additional tarps, bleach, petroleum jelly, corn starch, blankets, disposable towels, absorbent pads, clean scrubs and valuables bags.
  • Laptop with various Hazmat programs: Cameo, WISER, ERG, DOT online, etc.
  • Cell phone with CHEMTREC phone number as well as Poison Control Center, NRC, SDS, DOT, EPA, etc.
Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.