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Specialized Services: Rapidly Changing Hazmat Response

The world of emergency response is ever evolving. A few short decades ago, the thought that the fire service would be staffing ambulances and running medical calls seemed almost absurd. Technical rescue teams were relegated to the industrial community. And the concept of a SWAT medic wasn't even on the horizon.

The world of hazardous-materials response was no different, with nearly radical changes in response and ability today compared to a relatively short time ago.

There was a time in fire service history when hazmat responses of any kind were the responsibility of a relatively few specially trained responders. Some hazmat teams were so few and far between that response times were measured in hours instead of minutes. Specialty training was highly technical and limited to a few qualified responders. That training was expensive and not readily available for many agencies.

Today, hazmat response is still highly technical but changes in training and resource availability have expanded the number of responders and the types of responses. It's not uncommon today for engine, truck or rescue crews to routinely go on hazmat calls: fuel spills, odor investigations or other so-called minor hazmat emergencies.

In many places, engine crews—trained to the operations level—are tasked with decontamination responsibilities at hazmat incidents. Fire companies now routinely support the operations of the hazmat team.

The technical world of hazmat emergencies, however, is no less daunting today. In addition to the normal responses of tank-truck emergencies, industrial accidents and derailments, hazmat crews are today tasked with the intricacies of WMD response. This field of knowledge is relatively new to the fire service and encompasses a wide range of issues, including challenges with training, equipment and sensitive information.

Compounding these challenges are ongoing changes in the industrial and chemical community, the rapid proliferation of alternative fuels, the ever-expanding hazards of illegal drug manufacture and the newly popular chemical-suicide phenomenon. Embracing these realities in an era of decreased fiscal ability and increased economic uncertainty has been challenging for many organizations across the country.

Fortunately for the fire and emergency service, the breadth of knowledge and available information surrounding hazardous materials has become broader and more accessible. Regional, national and international conferences on hazardous materials are more prevalent today and well attended. Hazmat teams are collaborating and sharing resources and information like never before. There are even competitions and challenges designed for the hazmat community to demonstrate their skills and expand their knowledge base.

The IAFC has also worked to expand the knowledgebase for such specialty services as hazmat. Projects like the National Hazmat Fusion Center, the Hazmat Roundtable Report, Model Procedures for Responding to a Package with Suspicion of a Biological Threat, the Ethanol Fixed Facilities Guide—these efforts have all engaged subject-matter experts from throughout the world to provide valuable information to fire service members dealing with hazmat emergencies.

Perhaps some of the greatest impacts to the hazmat community have been in the areas of information and technology. Information retrieval and operational capacity of field equipment is at the forefront of this watershed. The explosion of technology has revolutionized the ability to query, capture and transmit relevant data on hazardous materials in real time. Could you have imagined 10 years ago that the entire Emergency Response Guidebook would be accessible on your phone? The thought of identifying an unknown substance in the field inside a minute with a small sample and a laser was simply preposterous. Yet, today our equipment and technology allow us to do this and more. What will we be able to do 10 years from today?

The field of hazmat response is dynamic—it's constantly changing. The variety and nature of calls hazmat teams respond to, the complexity of the technology leveraged to affect successful outcomes, the growing volume of information technicians have access to and must decipher—all of these things are in a constant state of flux. Seemingly, the only constant in the equation of specialized hazmat response is the unwavering commitment of the fire and emergency service to embrace these challenges.

While the number and complexity of circumstances the fire service will face will undoubtedly grow, there will always be men and women committed to answering the hazmat call.

Salvatore Scarpa is a battalion chief with North Kansas City (Mo.) Fire Department. He’s a member of the Central RIST and a member of the IAFC On Scene advisory board.

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