PPE Selection: Buzz Blog stirs ‘The Great Debate Part 1’

PPE Selection:


FEB. 16TH, 2017



Welcome back to the Buzz Blog Fellow Hazmatters, I am now two weeks removed from my Caribbean vacation and I wish I was back there already!!! I did come home to some good news for this coming June. I am happy to announce I have been given an opportunity to present at this year’s IAFC Hazmat Conference in my own backyard. I consider it a privilege to represent my department and the HazmatNation at this year’s conference. Mark your calendars for June 15th-18th in downtown Baltimore. Saturday June 17th is going to be a great morning for classes. Myself, The Hazmat Guys and John Emminizer from DC Dept. of Environment will all be present to give classes. Some of these classes run at the same time frame, however you will not be disappointed whichever class you choose. You will also not want to miss Phil and Jason from HazmatNation on Friday afternoon. They have a class based on putting variety and fun into your hands on training.  Every year the conference just gets better and better. There are many great classes to choose from as always.

We are no longer just dumb firemen!!





You have probably asked yourself by now, what is the great debate in hazmat? What topic could have so many different choices to give this much to talk about? I am talking about PPE selection of course!!! The old adage of Level A all the way just doesn’t hold water anymore. How can I make this statement you ask? The very simple answer is that we are more knowledgeable as responders than we ever have been. We are no longer just dumb fireman!! Here is a good example of what I mean. In the post 9\11 era we are more knowledgeable about WMD’S and how to respond to them. Immediately after 9\11 the WMD boxes issued to all BCFD units had the Mark I kits on them. Units responding to a suspected incident would probably utilize these kits for any suspected WMD attack as they probably just didn’t know any better. Most first responders at the time knew little about nerve or blister agents. They just know they were given these antidote kits for WMD along with plastic suits. Fast forward to the present day, the average responder can probably tell you the difference between nerve and blister agents. We are simply more educated as first responders due to the threat being brought to our homeland.

A multitude of training exists through online, hands on and responder guides to better prepare us. Hazmat response has been no different through the years. Chief Buzz Melton(this blog is in his honor)understood risk based response since the 1980’s. As a Battalion Chief and a chemist, he understood how chemicals could hurt us and how we could protect ourselves. I have heard legendary stories of how Chief Buzzy would teach in his underwear to make his point. (i have yet to confirm this as fact lol). I have seen a photo of Chief Buzzy at a fuming acid class in minimal PPE while members are in Level B. Was he being a cowboy and showing off? Was he simply proving his point that knowledge beats fear and ignorance every time?  I am going with the latter that knowledge is the power to make the correct decision when faced with choices.

PPE choices are critical to the success of our responses. We cannot successfully mitigate an incident without the correct PPE selection. This is where the “Great Debate” begins. We as hazmat responders have never seen the exact same scenario twice. Each response is a new challenge to be assessed and make decisions. Many factors can lead to different choices. What PPE is available to you? What is your comfort level in certain types of PPE? Have you trained to maintain proficiency in that PPE? Are members physically capable to operate in PPE? What PPE is most practical? What about the scenario or situation faced? Is the chemical confined or ventilated? What is the state of matter of the chemical? What detection equipment is available to you? Is life safety an issue? These are just a few of many questions that have to be answered before and during a response.

Starts with a good size up!

A good size up goes a long way to making a good decision. PPE selection must be made on knowledge and experience. Fear and ignorance are not good reasons to make PPE decisions. I have a couple of scenarios to give to you, with the first coming from a training class I held. I set up a drum scenario in an outdoor area with one drum on its side and one upright. The drum on its side had liquid pouring out of it and the upright one was sealed with bungs intact. The upright drum had a flammable liquid placard and the drum on it’s side had a corrosive placard. I just used generic placards with no specific UN number. I then gathered basic detection equipment(4 gas, PID, PH, water, Rad, TIC etc.) to be made available for the scenario. I began the scenario by having members make an initial assessment from a reasonable distance and establish a hot zone. I then asked the members to choose PPE for the investigation. I got three different answers from the group. I got Level A(vapor), Level B(splash) or TO Gear. SCBA was the unanimous choice for respiratory protection. I asked the members to justify their selections and why. Members who chose Level A stated they were dealing with an unknown and could be a vapor hazard. Those who chose Level B felt there was a well ventilated area and that a vapor hazard would be minimal at best. Members who chose A or B also stated the corrosive drum was visibly leaking where the flammable drum appeared to be closed with bungs intact. They felt the corrosive hazard would be the greater danger. The group that chose TO gear had varied responses. The responses included flammability is the greatest hazard and that corrosive liquids typically don’t present a vapor hazard. They felt that TO gear for an initial recon was justified as long as they did not get up close and personal with the corrosive product. After the initial discussion, I gave them my thoughts on PPE selection. I thought Level A was just overkill given an outdoor scenario with liquids involved. I then told them that Level B or TO Gear would be a good choice for this scenario. I then gave them the secret to making a good PPE choice.

The real secret is that you must protect your PPE choice while making entry.

How does an entry team do this? This is accomplished by using your detection equipment to continue your size up as the scenario progresses. Here is what I really want my members to understand. Make your PPE choice based on all available indicators during initial size up. As the scenario progresses, your detection equipment helps to make a better more informed size up as you make your initial entry. The first entry team suits up in Level B and proceeds with detection equipment to begin initial recon. The entry team starts to get elevated LEL readings as they get closer to the drums. Is Level B still the correct choice at this point? I don’t believe it is, you have a confirmed LEL hazard and your in a plastic suit. This is a recipe for injured hazmat techs. The opposite can be true. Suppose your entry team chooses TO Gear. The entry team gets PID readings(remember the PID is a toxicity meter and not for flammability) and gets strong color change on PH paper. This is a clear sign of a toxicity and corrosivity hazard. TO Gear is probably not the best choice in this scenario. This is the part I absolutely want to make clear. YOU MUST PROTECT YOUR PERSONNEL AND PPE CHOICES AT ALL TIMES!!!

The size up process must be continuous until the incident is fully mitigated. I then ask this question: Do I need to be on SCBA air as I approach the drums? The first answer I got was yes because air is free. I absolutely hate this answer. Is it the safest answer for this question? Yes it is the safest answer but is it based in fact and knowledge of chemical and  physical properties? I believe this answer is based in ignorance. I don’t know so I am just gonna breathe air anyway. We as hazmat teams can come up with a better answer than this. Looking at the facts of the scenario, the usage of detection equipment and knowledge of chemical and physical properties, I believe you can safely approach these drums without being on SCBA air. Just by approaching the drums from an upwind position alone reduces the danger of exposure. How quickly we forget the basics of hazmat and just how beneficial these simple steps are. I have appropriately named this topic the Great Debate. I started writing this and realized i have a lot of material i want to discuss on this topic. I decided that I am gonna break it into two parts. The second part will cover actual responses from members of the Hazmat Nation Roundtable (every Tuesday night at 9:15PM).  I will look at responses that Phil Ambrose(Glendale, CA FD) and Mike Monaco(FDNY) discussed on the Roundtable. Until the next blog, everyone be safe!!!




ppe selection

HazMat PPE Quiz


  1. Great article brother! Brings out a lot of good points. I preach all the time that one of the worst actors I never really want to deal with is a “Flammable toxic gas” and you were able to engage the minds of your students with the drum scenario. The only somewhat disagreement I’ll give you is about wearing and breathing via SCBA. Yes we as Hazmat Techs need a better answer than “air is free”. I guess I look at it like this, its not a safe atmosphere until its a metered safe atmosphere that’s not going to harm us. Proper research and scene sixe-up may allow us to approach off air, however if there is any doubt breathe air until its metered. Looking forward to “Part 2” and the HM conference.

    • Phil - HazMatNation

      Baltimore is going to be a good time. Looking forward to getting everyone together for some learning and a few beverages. HMN

    • Good advice. I agree, not to mention the fact that HAZWOPER requires being on SCBA until the atmosphere is monitored and determined to be safe.

  2. Thanks to everyone for their feedback. I am particularly happy to hear the differing opinions on the subject. We would never learn from each other if we all just agreed with each other. I am looking to spur conversation and thought about how we do our jobs. Thanks again everyone for responding to the blog.

  3. I have been in a few courses lately that the instructor has said “It is acceptable to wear turnout gear inside a Level A or B suit.” Please help me understand this line of thinking. I know “back in the day” this was done. However, I don’t feel this is an appropriate consideration.

    Thoughts? (And if you can cite references)

    • Phil - HazMatNation

      WHAT! Did this wizard of an instructor have experience of wearing both garments? As wonderful as someone might think ‘Hey put on that tyvek over your turnouts’ I would suggest they actually try it. I personally have not seen it done in 20 plus years in HazMat. Great for discussion though.

      • Every once in a while this will come up during a new Technician class. I am a strong believer in cultivating those tender inquisitive minds so I always make time during the class to let them try it for themselves. They figure it out real fast! And we discuss flash protection and let them wear a NFPA 1991 certified suit, too. This makes for some interesting discussions regarding changing atmospheres.

        • Phil - HazMatNation

          Now – wearing a nomex jumpsuit under another garment I could see…. Good point Rick – but it sounded like he meant the instructor suggested it. Scary it that was the case.

          • I think you are right that the instructor was saying this was a good idea. And I agree with you on the Nomex jumpsuit.

  4. As a CBR / Hazmat Rescue Technician Ex Full time Fire and Rescue and now Emergency Response I would say you alway errrr on the side of doubt / safety.

    Never wear anything but your normal pants and a tshirt under a splash suit or gas suit – way to hot and the wearer will certainly suffer from heat exposure. Gas tight suits its underwear and tshirt.

    JUs some more info:

    If you are lucky to be able to read the MSDS / SDS data on what the chemical is and you know what it is then thats always a bonus. BUT and I say a big but, often you will go to jobs where the labelling is Not what is in a container from China etc and there fore you are already in major doubt of what the Chemical is.

    Always approach from up wind but you really do need to know when any prevailing winds in the area may change and trust me they do especially if it is a early morning job that goes into the day.

    Park off a good distance (200 ) as per your ERAG Document or more and do your size up with Binoculars and set up the PID and other detectors ASAP.

    On approach is it is small amount of liquid and you can see that then going up one level to Tychem suit ( Splash Suit with full BA is the go ). I personal always take my TICK ( heat detector) as I can see the amount of any gas that may be in the area. Remember any gas will show up as a different grey colour and can be clearly seen in relation to normal air.

    Once we know how much gas / gas cloud there is then we can decide on going up another level to fully encapsulated suits with BA etc. Having made this mistake once and been badly exposed I always go fully Encap at the sign of any gas.

    Also always have your protective fire hose line up and running encase there is a gas explosion or even a large gas cloud incident while the team are approaching or inspecting the material. This means you can apply sprays ASAP to them , incase of fire or potential to a gas explosion.

    One thin I always do as well is ensure your PIDs are attached by lanyard to the team. As when shit hits the fan they will rung and most times drop the PID or other detectors on the ground in the hot zone. You need to recover this equipment to collect the reading s to determine your next step.

    In summary always dress up NEVER down if there is any sign of a gas.

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