When did HazMat become cool?

When did HazMat become cool

When did HazMat become cool?

By District Chief Joshua Fowler

“When did HazMat become cool?” This was the question that was asked by one of our current members. The background behind this inquiry is that up until recently in our organization, recruitment and retention for the HazMat team had been a longstanding issue.

Many recognize and appreciate the importance of HazMat, but how is that conveyed to a new generation of young firefighters. HazMat doesn’t exactly have that attractive appeal like other special operations teams, so perhaps the more important question is, “How can we make HazMat cool?”

By my department’s current structure, the Hazardous Materials Response Team (HMRT) consists of 10 technician level responders throughout the city on each 24 hour shift. We have a dedicated HazMat station that houses one quint and the HazMat rig with three firefighter/HazMat technicians each shift. Should an event occur, personnel throughout the city are mobilized and sent to the event and positions backfilled if needed.

Per our contract, if you want to put in your bid for the HazMat station, you have to be on the HazMat team. Simple, right? What complicates things is that young personnel resent going out there due to low run volume. And seasoned staff (you know, the old folks) have a desire to put their bid in, but aren’t exactly passionate about HazMat nor are they interested in contributing to the team. Now you can better understand my dilemma.

Perhaps my problem is your problem. So, what’s the ‘fix’? Great question, and while answers will vary, here are three ways that are sure to help.


If a training program is created that is engaging and sparks interest in the subject matter, recruitment and retention become simple. Not only are there scores of resources throughout the internet, sending your personnel to training outside your organization can reap some serious rewards. And even better, the training sites shared in this article are absolutely free for most organizations through the Department of Homeland Security and various grants. That’s right, FREE!


The Counter Terrorism Operation Support center (CTOS) located at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) offers state of the art training for first responders for WMD events.

Originally established for testing nuclear weapons, today the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), located northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada provides First Responder CBRNE Training in unique, authentic, and safe WMD venues using realistic training scenarios. The NNSS is the ONLY place for First Responders to experience an actual WMD environment! This training prepares the responders to take immediate, decisive action to prevent or mitigate terrorist use of radiological or nuclear WMDs, such as Improvised Nuclear Devices (INDs) and Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDDs or “dirty bombs”).1


The Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) was originally established in 1985,

To train railroad officials to safely handle accidents involving tank cars carrying hazardous materials.2

Because of its success, training was then opened up to the local emergency response community to include the chemical industry, government agencies, and emergency response contractors from all over the world. Located in Pueblo, Colorado, SERTC offers multiple training classes from awareness to technician, but what’s especially helpful is that students train on full-size props that they would normally encounter in a transportation emergency event.
The Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center is a research division of New Mexico Tech.
EMRTC provides world-class training in explosives, firearms and explosive site safety in association with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. State Department and other Federal and State agencies. Our course instructors are recognized worldwide as top explosives and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) experts. EMRTC’s facilities include a 40-square-mile field laboratory that includes more than 30 separate test sites, gun ranges and research laboratories to use for field training exercises.3

First responders are facing more and more challenges regarding suspicious packages in today’s volatile security climate. Through the Department of Homeland Security, training is now offered to help bridge that gap for today’s first responders.


Since 1998, the Center for Domestic Preparedness has trained more than 1,000,000 responders worldwide.

The Center for Domestic Preparedness provides advanced, all-hazards training to approximately 50,000 emergency responders annually from state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, as well as the federal government, foreign governments, and private entities, as available. The scope of training includes preparedness, protection, and response.4

One of the CDP’s features is the Advanced Responder Training Complex. The ARTC provides responders an ideal training ground that simulates an urban environment to include an industrial park, a mock subway station, and a simulated street scene with offices, businesses and warehouses. This allows the student/responder the opportunity to deal with a wide range of man-made and natural hazards in settings commonplace in communities across the nation.

Conferences (Non-Exhaustive)

Similar to sending your personnel to outside training sources, conferences provide a ‘recharge’ for your members. Not only will they have the opportunity to attend workshops taught by leading industry subject matter experts, they’ll have the opportunity to network with their peers from all over the world. Conference registrations aren’t free. However, they should not be viewed as an expense. Rather, they should be seen as an investment.5


Held every October in Houston, Texas, Hotzone’s conference is about you, the responder. While originally intended for Federal Region VI, Hotzone is open for anyone to attend. Hotzone’s goal is to,

Train and equip local, state and federal responders for safe, coordinated and efficient response to releases of hazardous materials which threaten public health and the environment.6

Hotzone’s statement is Training for Responders by Responders and I can personally attest to the sincerity of that statement.


Celebrating their tenth year, Coldzone held each May in Minneapolis, Minnesota, offers a variety of Hazardous Material courses for first responders of all skill levels. The conference provides the most recent and relevant information available with hands-on workshops on a variety of topics relating to many aspects of today’s hazards.

Midwest Hazardous Materials Conference

Beginning their thirty-first year in 2019, the Midwest Hazardous Materials Conference,

Features the best in both formal and informal education. This premiere event for responders is the second longest continually run haz mat response conference in the country!7

While only a two day conference, it is jam-packed with some of the finest training and instructors the HazMat community has to offer.

Florida HazMat Training Symposium

Celebrating their seventh year in 2019, the Florida HazMat Training Symposium occurs every January in Daytona Beach. The symposium offers multiple workshops taught by leading experts in the field as well as hands-on training. One aspect that separates this conference from the rest is that HazMat teams have the opportunity to compete against one another in a live scenario for bragging rights and one sweet trophy.

Virginia Association of Hazardous Materials Response Specialists

With thirty-five years, the VAHMRS hails as the longest running HazMat conference in the US. Held in Norfolk, Virginia,

[The] conference is open to anyone who has an interest in hazardous materials response, focusing on law enforcement, fire service, government and private hazmat responders and contractors.8


The Virginia Association of Hazardous Materials Response Specialists is the coordinated voice for hazardous materials response team members throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. Association members exchange information on a state-wide basis, interface with national organizations, and develop a common inventory list of resources and promote resource sharing in the Commonwealth.
It is the goal of the Association to promote standardization of techniques, equipment training, and teams, and to unite, for mutual benefit, those persons engaged in hazardous materials response and provide support to hazardous materials response teams.9

International Hazardous Materials Response Teams Conference

Held each June in Baltimore, Maryland, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Hazardous Materials Committee hosts the IHMRTC. Considered the premier HazMat conference in the nation with over 100 breakout sessions to choose from over a 4-day span, this conference certainly won’t leave you disappointed.


Are you paying your personnel? Even if it’s just a minimal amount, value is placed in a program, especially when that value’s in a personal bank account. However, value and incentive are not just monetary. Recognition and reward can reap just as many dividends.

Remind the team and your department that HazMat is a Special Operations (SPEC- OPS) team. This can easily be accomplished by creating patches, uniform bars/ribbons, and department approved apparel exclusive for team members. Special Operations Response Teams (SORTS) are (or should be) the rockstars of the organization. They are the best of the best and membership to the team should be never be inclusive.

Having a team that’s exclusive means that personnel should not be allowed access simply because they have a certification. Acceptance should never stem from a piece of paper. It should, however come from a person’s capability and how well they’ll mesh with the team. The time to find out a member is not a team player is not in the middle of an event. It is up to the team’s leadership to weed out the chaff through an evaluation process. One that is designed to eliminate all but the most determined and qualified individuals.

Once a candidate is chosen, a probationary training period should begin. The period of time designated by the organization should be deliberately designed to test, refresh and refine the candidate’s skills. Once this period ends, the candidate then becomes a member.

But the training should not end there. When members feel secure in their position, complacency is sure to follow. Your members should be driven to not just maintain their skill-set, but to improve upon it. This drive should not come out of fear of losing their spot on the team. It should come from the obligation they have to themselves, their family, their co-workers and their families, the organization, and lastly, the customer.
In his piece, What’s So Special About Special Ops, Andrew Sobel writes regarding SEAL training,

Many trainees are eliminated during the initial selection phase, but others continue to be dropped during later training phases — there’s a continual process of culling. This winnowing process can be seen as never-ending. Colonel Wesley Rehorn, a veteran Army Special Forces leader who heads the U.S. Joint Forces Special Operations Command, comments that “‘the system is very intolerant of mistakes, even for someone who is 20 years into his career. I may accept an error of commission, but rarely an error of omission.10

Additionally, leaders need to investigate each candidate’s motive and intent regarding membership by asking questions such as, “What have they done to show that they’re deserving of membership? How have they made it known that their desire is to see mission accomplishment where the team is concerned and not just themselves? Do they possess a ‘me’ or ‘we’ mindset? Are they willing to go above and beyond set expectations?”

These questions may not receive genuine answers, however your organization should already have a good idea about the reputation and work ethic of its potential candidates.

So how can you make HazMat cool? Take ownership. Regardless if you’re a member or leader, when you take ownership of your program and refuse to accept mediocrity, you create a program that personnel not only want to be a part of, but one they’re proud to stay a part of.

Member recruitment and retention can become one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to HazMat programs, but it doesn’t have to be.

Train your members.

Provide opportunities to learn.

Create incentive.






5-It should also be noted that many conferences offer scholarships to potential attendees.





10-Sobel, Andrew. “What’s So Special About Special Ops.” Strategy+Business. Winter/2009, Issue 57. Strategy+Business Web. 11 Jun. 2018

About the Author

Josh Fowler is the District Chief of Beaumont Fire/Rescue’s 52 district in Beaumont, Texas. He is the program manager for the department’s HAZMAT team and Technical Response/Recovery Group. He has 18 years on the job and has served as a rescue specialist and technical information specialist with Texas Task Force 1 since 2006. Josh has been married to his best friend, Courtney, for 19 years and together, they have 6 children.