Q&A: Back-to-basics hazmat response efforts for firefighters

Battalion Chief Martin Ranck outlines the three hazmat response levels and underscores the importance of interagency and industry partnerships


There is a common misconception that if your jurisdiction doesn’t include a large manufacturing or chemical plant, there’s little reason to worry about preplanning for hazmat events. But what constitutes a hazmat emergency? It’s more than you think.

Every fire department must prepare for hazmat incidents, as every area has hazardous materials. Your local gas station presents hazmat issues with the gasoline, oil and solvents on hand. Your local garden center presents hazmat issues with the fertilizers in storage. Grocery stores, big box stores, park facilities and some office buildings have various products that can present a hazmat issue if spilled or involve in fire. But that’s not all.

Martin Ranck is a battalion chief for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and its Hazardous Materials Response Team.
Martin Ranck is a battalion chief for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and its Hazardous Materials Response Team.

“The biggest unknown hazmat issue you can be faced with is a residential home,” explained Martin Ranck, a battalion chief for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and its Hazardous Materials Response Team. “There is no way to preplan what is stored at a residential home, garage or shed until we are faced with it on an actual incident. This is where our training and awareness of what a hazmat incident looks like proves to be so important.”

FireRescue1 connected with Ranck, who also serves as vice chair of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Hazardous Materials Committee, to discuss the importance of identifying, preplanning and training on the hazard facilities in your area.

FireRescue1: What’s the best way to start identifying the hazards in your community?

Ranck: One of the best ways to start identifying the hazards in your community is to physically get out and ride through your community. Stop in the businesses and meet with them to find out what they do there. If you have industry or manufacturing in your community, set up a time to meet with them and find out what hazards are at their facility.

In addition, reach out to the community emergency managers and the local emergency planning committees (LEPC). LEPCs are community-based organizations that assist in preparing for emergencies, especially those concerning hazardous materials. Under the emergency planning and community right to know act (EPCRA), LEPCs must develop an emergency response plan, review it annually, and provide information about hazardous materials in the community to citizens and first responders.

What level of coordination and communication should fire departments have with partner organizations and personnel at hazard sites?

It is extremely important to have coordination and effective communication with partner organizations at hazard sites in your response areas. At a minimum, the first-due fire companies should have a “first name basis” relationship with partner organizations. During an emergency is not the time to meet and try to coordinate resources and needs. Pre-incident planning and coordination affords fire departments and partner organizations to understand each other’s capabilities and limitations.

This communication should also extend to the LEPC. Regular meetings and review of emergency response plans will improve coordination and communication of the partner organizations. It will allow for opportunities to train and exercise emergency plans.

How often should fire departments train at/with these facilities – and does it depend on the facility type?

At a minimum, a yearly hands-on exercise or tabletop exercise should occur to remain familiar with their hazards and what your department is able to manage and where to get additional help if needed. (Photo/Martin Ranck)
At a minimum, a yearly hands-on exercise or tabletop exercise should occur to remain familiar with their hazards and what your department is able to manage and where to get additional help if needed. (Photo/Martin Ranck)

I believe the amount of training at or with a facility depends on the type of facility and the operations that occur there. At a minimum, a yearly hands-on exercise or tabletop exercise should occur to remain familiar with their hazards and what your department is able to manage and where to get additional help if needed (i.e., regional hazmat teams, mutual aid, specialty teams to include federal agencies).

For example, if you have a petroleum tank farm in your jurisdiction, you should make every attempt to conduct a tabletop exercise with all the responding agencies and the facility to identify gaps and areas for improvement. That should be followed up with a full-scale exercise later in the year to see how the plans from the tabletop come together in real time.

Other significant facilities or transportation companies to train with are pipelines and railroads. If there are major pipelines (natural gas or petroleum fuels) in your jurisdiction, it is imperative that regular training yearly is occurring. An incident at one of these type facilities is a major event, so emergency plans and response capabilities need to be practiced. The pipeline and railroad companies have well-laid-out plans and responses to different type incidents involving their equipment and products that we need to be familiar with. The railroad industry has an app (AskRail) that provides first responders with information on specific rail cars and their cargo. 

What’s the best crash course for learning how to read hazmat placards?

The IAFC Hazmat Fusion Center is a great resource for training opportunities about hazmat operations. There is a section under transportation and commodities that provides the DOT hazard classes as well as links to the Emergency Response Guidebook and the app. There are also links to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) with additional training opportunities and videos.

What’s the best way for firefighters to know when an incident is beyond their capabilities and needs to be turned over to technicians with advanced equipment?

That knowledge should occur before an incident. Preplanning and tabletop exercises will identify gaps or limitations with levels of certifications and advance equipment needs. Having to find out the limitations of your department on an actual incident is not the time to do so and can be significantly harmful to personnel if they end up in harm’s way before they realize it.

In addition, with regular internal training and refreshers of specific hazmat certifications (Awareness, Operations, Technician), you will have a good understanding the what expectations and limitations, as stated in the hazmat standards. You will also be aware of the equipment needs and knowledge required based on hazmat certification levels.

Can you outline the three primary hazmat response and training levels?

The fire service recognizes and adopts the NFPA codes and standards documents, which provides the different levels of response and training required. NFPA 472: Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents outlines the competencies for awareness-level personnel, operations-level personnel and technician-level personnel:

  • Awareness level personnel shall be persons who, in the course of their normal duties, could encounter an emergency involving hazardous materials/weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and who are expected to recognize the presence of the hazardous materials/WMD, protect themselves, call for trained personnel, and secure the area.
  • The operations-level responder shall be that person who responds to hazardous materials/WMD incidents for the purpose of protecting nearby persons, the environment, or property from the effects of the release.
  • The hazardous materials technician shall be that person who responds to hazardous materials/WMD incidents using a risk-based response process to analyze a problem involving hazardous materials/WMD, plan a response to the problem, implement the planned response, evaluate progress of the planned response and adjust as needed, and assist in terminating the incident.

Are there any other resources you’d like to share?

If you are interested in keeping up with the emerging threats and ever-changing hazmat landscape, attending the IAFC's International Hazardous Materials Response Teams annual conference is a must. This is a conference for the newest firefighter to the seasoned hazmat technician and chief officer. The speakers are some of the most knowledgeable about hazmat, and the vendors provide some of the most innovative equipment available on today's market. 

This year’s conference is June 4-7, 2020, in Baltimore, with preconference classes on June 3.  (Check here for conference status updates.)

Editor’s Note: For more information about hazmat incident training, visit the IAFC Hazardous Materials Fusion Center and the FireRescue1 hazmat resource page.

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