Enter the hot zone

One lane of I-95 in West Palm Beach, Fla., closed for a week while fire rescue hazmat personnel and environmental regulators conducted a homicide crime scene investigation. Meanwhile, in Jupiter, Fla., the sheriff’s office environmental investigators...


One lane of I-95 in West Palm Beach, Fla., closed for a week while fire rescue hazmat personnel and environmental regulators conducted a homicide crime scene investigation. Meanwhile, in Jupiter, Fla., the sheriff’s office environmental investigators respond to handle a suicide investigation. It took a long time for the police services to consider hazardous materials a danger, to be sure an impediment. While the field now recognizes such dangers, the need for personnel, especially investigative and tactical, to train to function in this atmospheres is often overlooked.

Many incidents are not being handled by the professionals responsible for in-depth investigations. Fire service hazmat technicians and environmental regulators are not criminal investigators; environmental investigators are not crime scene or death investigators. Potentially significant evidence may be overlooked or even destroyed due to the inability of appropriate investigators to work on a contaminated scene.

Some investigation units have been trained up to these levels. In Florida, Tier One forensic teams are provided with hazmat training and equipment. Nationally many drug investigators have been trained to permit clandestine drug lab operations. All American bomb technicians are hazmat qualified. Otherwise, few investigative resources are capable of entering the hot zone.

In the United States hazmat response is governed by 29 CFR 1910.120, although state and local laws and rules may also impact an agency. 1910.120 establishes several levels of training. Every field member with any law enforcement agency should be trained and annually recertified at the hazardous materials first responder awareness level, which permits one to recognize hazardous materials and use the Department of Transportation Emergency Response Guidebook to determine physical hazards and safe staging distances. Firefighters especially are trained to the First Responder Operations level, which permits them to safely work on the perimeter of an incident and support hazmat technicians.

Hazmat Specialist training is aimed at specialist support personnel—engineers, chemists, etc.—who may respond to support technical assets, but overall need only to function in hot zone support.

The journeyman level of training is the Hazardous Materials Technician level, which has traditionally been interested in rescue, mitigation, and remediation, but is also where investigations and tactical response must function.

Basic hazardous materials technician training usually encompasses a 40-hour curriculum (note that the International Association of Firefighters has produced a 160-hour program, adopted by many fire agencies and even the State of Florida, but is aimed at fire service hazardous materials mitigation personnel). All training emphasizes identification, detection and monitoring, respiratory protection, clothing ensemble selection, decontamination, and overall safety. Often industrial (hazardous waste operations and emergency response or HAZWOPER) training will be more heavily inclusive of advanced detection and monitoring, while hazmat response delves deeper into mitigation tactics.

Training may be accessed from a variety of sources. In many areas, fire training sites will offer a 40-hour hazmat technician course. Although designed to meet the needs of mitigation specialists, it will prepare law-enforcement officers for hot zone operations. Most areas with significant industry will find commercial or educational facilities offering HAZWOPER training. For the investigator, this may be a better course. Its emphasis is greater on detection, monitoring, and identification—skills of value not only to safety but even for investigative aspects while emphasizing less on mitigation.

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