The only way to be prepared is to be well trained and well educated, which are essential components to effectively respond to and mitigate threats from chemical, biological, and radiological incidents. Evidence-based response requires the knowledge of the threat, training in skills needed to be effective, and the ability – based on sound judgment – to apply the appropriate knowledge and skills to ensure an effective response.
These three requirements are the basis for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) training standards for hazardous materials (hazmat) response training. In today’s world, it is essential to understand the chemical, biological, and radiological threats that communities and responders face. Emergency responders require a substantial knowledge of natural sciences, mathematics, and technologies to maintain competency for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) responses. Like many training requirements and life safety codes, emergency response training for hazmat incidents began with the need to have standardized training to address expected competencies based on the potential risk and response role.
All emergency service personnel – from cadet through command – are required to have a basic understanding to recognize that an incident has occurred,identify the threat, and notify environmental responders. Emergency responders such as firefighters have the added responsibility to be trained to take defensive measures without contacting the chemical released and to establish command to manage the incident.
In the 1980s, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) developed and published consensus standards (NFPA 472) to identify competency standards for emergency responders. NFPA 473 focuses specifically on competency standards for emergency medical service providers.
In 1990, OSHA issued regulations referred to as Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER). The regulations found in 29 CFR 1910.120 were focused on providing health and safety requirements for employees involved in the management, clean up, and emergency response to hazmat incidents. Much of the regulations were designed to protect the health and safety of workers after events such as the Love Canal cleanup in New York in the early 2000s and the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India.
Hazmat technicians and specialists are specifically trained to respond to and take measures to manage emergencies. Hazmat technicians are trained to identify the class of materials being released and to take actions to mitigate the threat by stopping the release and reducing the threat to life, environment, and property. Specialists are those that have developed a specialized knowledge of a specific product, of material, or type of response such as rail tank car response.
Since the creation of the HAZWOPER regulations, there has been a shift in the threat to many communities requiring response. In addition to toxic industrial chemicals and materials, there is an increase in concerns related to clandestine laboratories, and the intentional release of chemical, biological, and radiological agents by those that mean to do harm.
Training Hazmat Personnel
Hazmat technician training varies across the country. According to OSHA regulations, the minimum requirement for a hazmat technician is a 40-hour course with defined competencies. However, many have migrated to a curriculum that is 80 to 150 hours to address the competencies found in the revised NFPA 472, which now includes weapons of mass destruction incident response.
In an interview on 22 July 2016, Fire Chief James McLaughlin, Warwick Fire Department, remembers when he took his first Hazmat Technician course. The class was 80 hours and provided the basics in chemistry and offensive techniques to control releases. Today, the 64 members of Warwick Fire Department’s hazmat team are required to complete a course of study that exceeds 120 hours. In addition, the team must complete a minimum of 40 hours of refresher training annually.
Education for tomorrow’s hazmat responders may very well begin high school. U.S. students have continually lagged behind the rest of the world in science and math literacy. Many school districts, colleges, and universities are working to incorporate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) literacy into their curriculum.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducts a study of the competency of young students in math, science, and reading. PISA completed a study in 2015 and will release the data by the end of 2016. However, a 2013 Wall Street Journal article by National Education Reporter Stephanie Banchero, entitled U.S. High-School Students Slip in Global Rankings, reviewed PISA’s 2012 test scores. She found that U.S. students’ STEM literacy has remained generally stagnant since 2000 with students’ science literacy dropping four places from 20 to 24.
Creating a Better Understanding
Not all hazmat teams are trained and equipped to respond to weapons of mass destruction. And not every hazmat technician is trained to respond to the deliberate release of these weapons. In 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency published Document 583-4 (Typed Resource Definitions: Fire and Hazardous Materials Resources), which provides the criteria for typing hazmat entry teams. In the document, FEMA guidance, which is not mandatory, types hazmat teams based on their capability:
A Type III team is one that is responding to known chemical.
A Type II team is one that is expected to respond to and be able to identify and mitigate unknown chemical releases.
A Type I team is one that is trained and equipped to respond to unknown chemical releases as well as incidents involving CBRNE weapons.
Given the need for an understanding of the natural sciences involved in hazmat response, hazmat technician training should be modified to provide a significant understanding of chemistry, biology, and even general physics as it relates to both industrial chemicals and weapons of mass destruction.