Haz-Mat is the mystery mission of the fire service. Mysteries can be scary. Like setting sail from Europe over 500 years ago with the belief that you might just sail off the end of the flat Earth, many firefighters don’t know what to expect when they walk into their haz-mat class. Unless they are part of a specialized haz-mat team, many of them study haz-mat once a year. There is a fear of putting water on anything since somewhere they saw a W with a line through it. There is a fear of plastic suits. Slowing down to establish tactics before rushing in is a major change to firefighters that immediately rush in and stop the fire. And CHEMISTRY!!!! That brings more fear than a Stephen King book.
So, how can we eliminate that fear? First responders need to understand that chemicals are dangerous but so is the crap that we are around at every fire. This has never been made more apparent than in this era when firefighters continue to be diagnosed with cancers and other ailments. Fires produce toxic gases that would mostly be classified as class 6 toxic gases if they were shipped over the road. Flashovers and explosions are phenomena that are different than, but similar to, the hazards of flammable gases that we study in all hazmat classes. The only difference is that we can’t see the chemicals in a fire because we don’t carry the meters with us that would show us how much is in the air because our biggest hazard is the rapidly changing fire conditions and not the toxic gases. Some of those hazards we can minimize with sound tactical decisions. More importantly, we protect ourselves as much as possible by shielding our most susceptible organ, our lungs, with SCBA. The basic premise is that we need to associate the hazards of “hazmat” chemicals to the hazards of fire gases. Adult learners will be more able to transfer fireground activities that they commonly use if we can associate them with hazmat. When they see this, they will understand that their PPE will serve as a significant piece of their protection as long as we wear it correctly.
Students also need to know that they are safe in the training environment but that environment also has to be realistic. Flashover trainers and burn buildings allow us to recreate emergency scenes for firefighters. In those scenarios, firefighters see smoke, fire, or victims and react. How can we reproduce this in the hazmat realm? We can use simulators that allow them to see a scene but never be in danger. In our classes, we sometimes use toy fire trucks and hazmat containers laid out on a map of a simulated city. We can adjust the map to show topography or street layouts. This means that we can create any spill that is possible in the response district with little setup time. Once you establish a routine, this can be an easy company drill that can be completed every shift. Have a different firefighter be responsible for the scenario of the day and research the chemical ahead of time. This will help them become more familiar with the research materials. If they can see it and play with the toys, they stay awake instead of smashing their face as they fall asleep into their ERG. We achieve the same learning outcome but students are engaged. They build a memory of the emergency in their head that they can recall later on when the real thing happens.
Classes need to be built around scenarios that responders would expect to encounter. Over the years, the typical phrase that someone would mutter within the first five minutes of every class was “I use the rule of thumb (referring to being back far enough so their thumb can cover the entire scene) and then I call you guys (the hazmat team).” Their view of hazmat is based on the picture of a BLEVE or their skin melting off. The reality is that first due companies will be the ONLY ones that can make life saving rescues and they will set the tone for the rest of the incident. Most hazmat runs are the routine calls. Carbon monoxide calls come in every day. “Yeah I know how that works.” And propane calls, you go on those too. Where do you look for propane? “It sinks” Yes, now you understand vapor density. See, chemistry isn’t that bad. Start with something that is easy and then build. You have to walk before you run.
We also want responders to build psychomotor skills that become good work practices. When it comes to meters, we want students to watch the screen that gives them the information and react to what they see. In the past, instructors would give them data about how much chemical was in the air but students reacted only when the instructor gave them a reading. One way that we can do this is by exposing their actual meters to some chemicals but because we want to keep them safe, we can’t expose them to high vapor pressure chemicals that might be toxic or flammable. Some students leave classes thinking that the meters are useless only because the instructor gave them chemicals to sample in a room that was so cold that the chemical was not emitting many gases. Sampling ethanol from hand sanitizer is one way to demonstrate this. When it is on a table it sits with a low vapor pressure but as soon as we let it evaporate by heating it up on our hands, the meter will show them what meter response times are and the cross sensitivities of the meter. As experienced instructors, we know what each meter will do when we expose it to a chemical. By using simulators like the HazSim, we get the meters in their hands and create the habit of looking at the meter and moving it up and down based on the vapor density of the chemical. We can also show how moving a few inches with the meter can show dramatically different readings. If you have them in Level A training suits, it is okay to give them above IDLH readings of sarin with the HazSim and they are still safe. No need to be prepared with an antidote kit and an exposure form.
Change is happening but it is slow in some places. The biggest change that I have seen from firefighters is that they used to doff their SCBA mask as soon as it was “overhaul time” and now they are wearing their SCBA throughout the entire incident. There is a current focus on firefighter gear decon. Continuing to breath out of the SCBA while we are decontaminated and get out of the gear? This sounds like hazmat skills. Have we bridged the gap? Firefighters are now utilizing hazmat tactics on the fireground! We have a significant opportunity to change our classes to show the similarities of fireground operations and hazmat tactics. If we can take the mystery out of hazmat and establish a safe training environment, we can reduce the fear. Less fear equals better learning and more capable responders.