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...


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.

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