Let’s go back to the early 1980s: the fire service was just starting to respond to a new emergency response, classified as hazardous materials. Hazmat responses weren’t new to the fire service, but how we responded to them needed to be addressed before we lost crews of firefighters.
At the NFA’s Executive Fire Officers Program (EFOP) at the time, the subject of hazmat responses was at foremost for those with a vision on how to properly respond, what to wear and how to contain the scene to ensure crews remained safe.
One requirement of the EFOP is to write an applied-research paper (ARP) after completing each class. ARPs are in-depth studies or analyses on important topics to the fire service and other emergency-service organizations; it’s easy to credit the ARPs when we look at some of the changes over recent decades in the fire and emergency service.
At this time when hazmat responses were the buzz, fire departments spent thousands of dollars to buy Level A and Level B suits, plug and dike kits and anything else that a vendor would sell in the name of hazmat response.
The problem was that the fire service was very reactionary at the time. If community X had a train derailment, community Y would go out and buy whatever they thought would take care of a similar incident there. We had all this specialized equipment but not a lot of training as to how to use it.
In 1973, a propane railcar exploded in Kingman, Arizona, killing 11 firefighters and 1 civilian. This event led to a change in railcar construction, but it did little for how the fire service responded to these types of events.
The NFA developed some of the first hands-on training courses for hazmat incidents in the country. This training led to a number of ARPs on responses and eventually to an incident-command system and the present National Incident Management System. The fire service, traditionally slow to accept change, embraced this new model of response; before long, this led the fire service into other areas that needed to be changed.
It’s now 2016, and the fire service has come a long way in responding to hazmat incidents. Today we have regional hazmat-response teams that cover multiple jurisdictions or individual fire departments have dedicated hazmat teams in their cities. An actual hazmat response today is much more cognizant of the wellness of the firefighters and the community.
There’s a real connection between the EFOP’s applied-research projects and our ability to respond in a safer and more-controlled manner to a hazmat incident. Applied research papers, on just about any subject relative to the American fire service, are available from the NFA’s Learning Resource Center.