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 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.

Several firms offer hazmat training addressing specific audiences. For example, Lake St. Louis, Mo.-based Safety Training and Consultations Inc. (STCI) offers hazmat tech training classes for technical and investigative operations. Vice President for Operations Richard Shoaf explains, “STCI’s broad instructional base of personnel from the hazmat, bomb disposal, SWAT, investigative, and forensic communities permits us to offer programs tailored to the specific needs of any one field.”

While supporting the South Florida UASI, STCI offered several hazmat classes for SWAT. Hazmat training using practicals addresses the needs of tactical operators, like firearms skills in protective ensembles, entry and room clearing exercises dressed out, and discussion of decontamination specific to tactical needs, such as contaminated firearms and tactical equipment.

To support training, agencies must be cognizant of their responsibilities. For example, an agency must adopt a respiratory protection policy, involving medical screening, before using any respirators. OSHA provides a medical screening questionnaire, to be reviewed by a medical professional, which is all that is necessary for the majority of personnel. OSHA also makes the agency, not the training facility, responsible for certifying employees as hazardous materials qualified. It is important that administrators understand they are responsible to review training and determining that it meets their agency’s specific needs.

Each department needs also to address any equipment concerns; once upon a time, fire boots and rain suits were taped together. Today, OSHA mandates the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certified equipment be used. NIOSH tests and approves manufactures equipment for various roles (industrial, CBRN, etc.). Also, some equipment has a life span. Items like helmets and hard hats bear a code which tell us when they must be replaced.

Agencies should investigate some personal protective gear, such as disposable suits, gloves, and helmets. However, if an agency can partner with the local fire service, it may enjoy significant savings in acquisition and maintenance of things like reusable suits and self-contained breathing apparatus. In regards to self-contained breathing apparatus, it must consider purchasing masks for individual issue to its trained personnel, while utilizing packs, regulators, and bottles from the fire department.

Partnering with a local hazmat team will also prove advantageous. A hazmat deployment is personnel intensive, with a command and safety structure, decontamination personnel, and very importantly, a rapid intervention team (two in, two out concept) standing by to effect rescue. Since the hazmat team possesses greater depth of trained personnel, and continually trains and practices skills, they are a valuable asset to complement investigative hazmat personnel.

One significant area consideration is contamination. Hazmat scenes require all personnel and equipment leaving the hot zone to be decontaminated or safely disposed of. Personnel advance along the decontamination line, being thoroughly scrubbed and rinsed, and then methodically remove their protected ensembles with some pieces being discarded as hazardous waste. But what of equipment, evidence, and writing materials?

Many tactical teams that have prepared for chemical/biological/radiological entries have established policies calling for their external equipment—load bearing vests, firearms, etc.—to be disposed of, fearing that contamination of intricate materials may be beyond assured decontamination, and with the high lethality of products such as the VX or Sarin, because the cost of replacement is far less than the life safety hazards.

Photography, a primary tool, requires cameras leave the scene for uploading images. Here, waterproof or dive cameras may be a sound investment. Writing instruments must be disposable (exit scene, drop them into the waste bucket). Notes may need to be bagged as individual pages in plastic, to be decontaminated, with the understanding the notes will be copied or transcribed and then safely destroyed.

Processing DNA scenes brought new packaging of latent powders and brushes, designed for one-time use. These should be incorporated into hazmat investigations, too, permitting their disposal upon completion of the investigation. Latent lifts must be individually packaged in plastic, warning labels attached after decontamination to protect latent fingerprint examiners from exposure to any contaminants they may have absorbed. Sturdy evidence with no further need of laboratory analysis may be decontaminated. Other materials may have to be bagged and sealed in clear plastic, to permit decontamination, and then marked to warn against being opened.

Any evidence for further exam or analysis requires special handling. Latent lifts or questioned documents must be packaged in clear bags (nylon fire debris bags are excellent), with appropriate markings placed on them after passing through decontamination to protect all off-site personnel. Materials for chemical or biological analysis require not only safe packaging on-scene, but also knowledgeable lab personnel and appropriate facilities to safely sample the evidence.

Evidence disposal is also unique. All contaminated evidence must be disposed of through approved hazardous waste handlers. Here, an agency may find guidance from local environmental authorities familiar with local hazardous waste firms. It is also important to recognize that hazardous waste disposal generates considerable expense, but nowhere near the financial cost and coast to public relations of improper disposal.

We have entered a new day in law enforcement, where techniques from both the industry and the fire service need to be incorporated into operations.

To expect the fire service, environmental regulators, or even other arms of the police service to handle contaminated scene investigations that require in-depth criminalistic services is not only unreasonable, but a prescription for flawed and failed cases. Your agency may find that investing in training and some equipment, and by strengthening the bonds among various public safety fields, pays significant dividends in the long run.


Retired law enforcement officer Paul Laska specialized in criminalistics and bomb disposal. Reach him through his website, www.paulrlaskaforensicconsulting.com.