In this blog, we will discuss the importance of incident command and emergency management during a hazardous materials event and review some of the critical elements, as well as roles and responsibilities, which help ensure a safe and efficient hazmat emergency response.

It is important on any emergency scene to communicate that you have a system in place to ensure that all tasks are completed to safely and effectively mitigate any hazardous materials. We know that the definition of an incident command system is a standardized structure that allows for a cooperative response by various emergency services and agencies, to organize and coordinate response activities without compromising the decision-making authority of local command. This system utilizes a chain of command and tactical checklist of roles to ensure that all scene objectives are met, and the strategies and tactics are completed to make a situation such as a chemical release or large spill, better. Many incident command systems, roles, and terms may be different depending on your responding agency but will have similar applications and meanings, so always refer to your particular service’s standard operating guidelines for these details.

Assessing the Situation

First, let’s take a look at some key elements of response for a hazardous materials event. As a firefighter or member of any emergency service responding, we may be en route to anything from a chemical spill in a fixed facility, to a transportation incident with a hazardous product release on a major roadway or railway.

The incident command scene size-up starts with asking the right questions and receiving relevant information before we even arrive. Some key questions that should be asked by a company officer of a first-in apparatus prior to arrival, or indicators to be assessed, may include finding out details about the location of the spill, understanding whether it is taking place in a commercial, residential or highly populated area with people or livestock nearby. Can we find out the number of injured personnel on scene? Can we establish the substance or the amount of product that has been spilled?

For instance, if the dispatcher has received appropriate information from the emergency caller, we may be able to find out the time of the spill, spill rate, and extent of spill travel prior to on-scene arrival. This will help the first-in apparatus crew to upgrade a call to add more resources such as additional fire apparatus, hazardous materials teams, law enforcement, and paramedics, as well as better vehicle and apparatus staging and placement. Always remember to arrive in an apparatus uphill, upwind, and upstream of any hazardous materials event, to minimize the chance of exposure to a product release.

Based on a widely known eight-step process for responding to a hazmat incident, we must ensure site management and control the scene immediately, upon arrival if possible. This will include an immediate risk assessment of the scene and working to identify the extent of the problem of the hazardous material release. The following items are routinely used on an Incident Command tactical worksheet, which is highly recommended for any incident commander of a hazmat or CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive) event, no matter your level of training and expertise. These incident command tactical worksheets and checklists can aid in organizing and sectoring on-scene resources, tasks, and strategies. Major considerations upon arrival may include: detecting the presence of the hazardous material, estimating the likely harm to the public or first responders without any intervention by conducting a detailed risk assessment, and moving towards choosing response objectives based on this information.

Is it just a large gasoline spill that is entering a nearby ditch, or is it a highly volatile chemical with a toxic inhalation hazard that may travel for several kilometers? It is this type of assessment that will determine response objectives, selection of personal protective equipment, the set-up of various control zones, and the decision to perform mitigation tactics such as diking and damming, plugging a leak, or moving forward with a non-intervention response. The initial scene size-up and risk assessment can be crucial in initiating a risk-based response that is appropriate to the product you are dealing with, for the on-scene personnel, spill mitigation, and personal protective equipment and air monitoring capabilities. Your fire department’s scope of practice and response will play a role in making decisions about the best way forward on a hazmat scene.

We have various hazardous materials response models to consider and questions we need to ask while on scene.
Some of these questions may include:

What is the product and is it a solid, liquid or gas?
How do I see it? Do I have the detection equipment such as air monitors or PH paper to aid in an assessment?
How can I stop it? Do we need to plug a leak or access to a shut-off valve?
How can I protect myself? What personal protective equipment are we going to wear as first responders, e.g. bunker gear or a chemical protective suit?
How do I decontaminate myself? Do we set up a wet decontamination system with three separate pools, or is dry decon with the use of fans or brushes an option?

Once we have answers to these questions, what are the major roles and responsibilities, tasks, and sectors of an effective hazardous materials incident command system? Let’s break it down.

Incident Commander – The ideal incident commander will be a competent supervisor and have relevant hazmat experience. The incident commander is responsible for all aspects of the hazmat emergency response, including developing incident objectives and tasks, managing all incident operations, applying resources, and ensuring the well-being of all persons involved. The incident commander will understand tactical priorities and delegate and sector elements of an incident action plan.

Hazardous Material Branch Director – This individual will report directly to the Incident Commander and oversee the tactical functions of a hazmat incident. Many of these functions will be divided up into various sectors and assigned to leaders who are typically company officers or veteran firefighters. These sector leader roles are listed below.
Entry Team Leader – This person will be responsible for supervising all tactics and spill control efforts in the hazardous area and assist in directing personnel. This leader will oversee a team or teams going downrange to initiate an investigation on the hazardous material incident, including air monitoring and detection tactics as well as spill mitigation strategies such as damming or diking, shutting off a control vale or plugging a leak.

Site Access Control Leader – Controls all movement of personnel between the cold, warm, and hot zones. This person communicates when equipment is ready to be mobilized within these zones, such as monitoring equipment and spill mitigation equipment including air monitoring equipment or absorbent for spills.

Decontamination Leader – This sector officer will ensure that the decontamination process is set up correctly and that it is conducted in a safe and effective manner ensuring that all first responders, citizens, and equipment have been decontaminated before leaving the scene of an incident. These decontamination methods may include technical decon for firefighters, law enforcement, and paramedics, or mass decon for any citizens who may have been exposed. Decisions on whether to use a wet decon system with water brushes and run-off pools or dry decon with fans and dry brushes are critical ones. These decisions must be made using a risk-based awareness mindset for the safety of both emergency responders and the general public.

Technical Research Specialist & Planning – It is imperative that a hazmat-trained technician, or a small group of technicians with this training, be assigned to this role. This role involves gathering and providing technical information to the incident commander using various resources such as response guides, hazardous product identification sheets, online resources and facility representatives. This information can be researched as the first-in down-range investigation teams provide information on labels, product numbers, and other details. It is important to ask for key information if the hazardous material is already known based on information from on-site management, or visible shipping labels and container clues. Once more information from the hot zone can be relayed back to the research leaders during an initial investigation, those leaders will use various sources and documents to find out further details on hazards of the product, risks in the areas of flammability and health effects, and public safety measures that should be taken, including decontamination methods that may be. It is recommended that a minimum of three sources of information are consulted before making a decision on the best way to mitigate a hazardous materials incident.

Hazmat Safety Officer – This role is typically assigned to a company officer or fire services leader who has experience in understanding and dealing with the risk in a hazmat call. Job functions may include confirming the type of chemical protective suit to be worn during an incident, ensuring all personal protective equipment and chemical protection suits are worn properly and safely, confirming that a communication system and plan is in place should an emergency require on-site responders including the placement of a rapid intervention team (RIT) for a downed responder. The safety officer is responsible for scene safety, decon safety, and selection of an appropriate decontamination area upwind and uphill of a chemical release, and also the overall safety of a scene. A safety officer in this role has the authority to alter and suspend any on-scene activities and will inform the Incident Commander of any actions needed to be taken.

Although many of the positions listed above should be led by individuals trained to a technician level, it is important that awareness-level hazmat responders and operations-level hazmat responders be familiar with these roles. It is only through pre-planning and undergoing mock hazmat emergencies and training, not only as a crew but with other responding agencies, that will you have the confidence to perform at a high level. With the many hazardous materials calls an agency responds to, we need to all do our part as professionals to be as prepared as possible for these events, even though they don’t happen as often as other typical responses. Although a large-scale hazardous material release is not as common as a fire alarm or medical call during our day-to-day shifts, it is vital that all personnel understand the roles and responsibilities of a hazardous material incident command system, and look to practice the use of these systems on emergency calls, both big and small.

Adam McFadden is a professional firefighter and hazmat technician for one of the largest fire departments in Canada. He is the owner of Firehouse Training and is responsible for the development of various fire service training programs. Adam is the co-chairman of CBRNE University, an online micro-learning training platform for those working within the area of hazardous materials response. Adam has taught multiple fire service disciplines including incident command fundamentals, hazardous materials operations, and high-rise firefighting tactics in both the public sector and private safety industries.

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