In one week of August 2022 alone, three dangerous petrochemical fires raged all around North America and brought attention to the serious challenges facing first responders fighting hazmat accidents, spills, and crimes—not to mention the ordinary incidents arising from the prevalence of everyday hazardous materials in industry and our communities.
On August 6, a Cuban plant required an international response fighting a fire at a supertanker base in Matanzas. It took five days and the emergency response of two other countries’ firefighters and firefighting equipment to control—and even longer to remediate the impact of hazardous materials. More than a hundred people were injured, with others dead or missing.
On August 4, a fire at a Fort Bend, TX petrochemical industry plant took a coordinated community response, including shelter-in-place orders, four hours of active firefighting, and monitoring and testing by the hazmat technicians afterwards to contain.
And on August 3, hazmat technicians were called into an abandoned rowhouse in Philadelphia that had been subject to a previous fire. Neighbors complained of a strong odor of gasoline. When fire department personnel entered, they discovered 154 plastic milk jugs of gasoline, apparently stashed there by a former resident, who was also suspected and sought by the police regarding the past fire.
These three incidents, in diverse locations and involving a variety of chemicals and causes, all involved hazardous materials that were dangerous to first responders and to surrounding communities. They all required skillful interventions by highly trained firefighting and hazmat personnel. And those firefighters and hazmat technicians relied on knowledge and skills that, themselves, can be dangerous for fire departments to develop during training.
Hazmat Beyond Fighting Petrochemical Fires
Even when petrochemicals are not involved, there remain an increasing number of instances where emergency response personnel rely on firefighter hazmat training.
For example, small town water treatment plants, in addition to refinery fires, have experienced dangerous chlorine leaks significant enough to require evacuations and aid from larger departments. Not only do these hazmat accidents pose a safety threat to individuals, they can also threaten the safety of critical infrastructure—like the water supply. Fire departments are likewise increasingly most cope with the dangers associated with suicide attempts involving hazardous chemicals.
Most concerningly, firefighters are increasingly asked to handle dangerous calls related to lithium ion batteries in electric vehicles and other electronic devices. According to the Fire Department of New York, in 2022 alone, its firefighters and hazmat technicians battled 250 battery fires—and firefighters all around the country are underprepared for fighting them.
Containing scenes like these is a serious business and frightening to the communities where they happen—and even the teams involved. Fortunately, according to Richard Miller (an IAFC consultant and retired Fairfax VA fire captain), the response itself can be relatively straightforward for most chemical and hazmat fires:
“The logic is to apply a foam that can neutralize biodiesel, ethanol and petroleum fuels. It is better to be over prepared for an incident with biodiesel than to be under prepared for an ethanol incident.”
Firefighters need systematic training in these skills.
Unfortunately, foam training has itself become a challenge. Many firefighting foams contain hazardous PFOS/PFAS “forever chemicals”. New regulations limit their use during training, because these hazardous materials aren’t just dangerous during and after fires, spills, and waterway contamination. “Forever chemicals” are even dangerous during training—whether to communities’ groundwater or, through repeated exposure while fighting fires, to individual firefighters’ health.
Simulation Training Systems are the Solution for Safety
Hazmat emergencies typically arise where hydrocarbons like gasoline and other petroleum products are involved; around illicit drugs and the facilities used to produce them; and in everyday household products like cleaners and solvents. All of these scenes pose physical dangers to community and firefighter alike. But firefighter hazmat training doesn’t have to.
Simulation training can provide firefighters with the necessary knowledge, experience, and skills to control petrochemical fires and hazardous materials—all from a place of relative safety. The best systems can simulate both specific evolutions and broader, more complex scenarios. More importantly, they allow the trainer to both run prepared “scripted” scenarios and to tweak those programs in the heat of training, to throw in extra challenges, distraction, or skill advancement.
Retired Fire Chief Leigh Hollins advises that the key to good hazmat/petrochemical fire training is to “Mix up training evolutions. Avoid falling into doing the same tanker training every time. Yes, repetition is an important part of learning. But how much is anyone learning if the same training spill material is leaking from the same area of the tanker in the same crash scenario and impinging on the same hazards every time? Make the placards inaccurate, change the runoff threats, alter the time of day and weather, and tweak the number of responders available. Change the scenario based on responder mistakes — planted or organic. Different scenarios require different tasks and give more opportunity for hazmat team members to think on their feet and do different hands-on skills.”
Prepare Firefighters and Hazmat Technicians to Respond with Skill and Thoughtfulness
Simulation-based training is especially vital for developing hazardous materials emergency response skills. Outside of a simulator’s immersive realistic virtual environment, it is simply too dangerous or costly to properly prime firefighting and hazmat teams to make the right decision under such circumstances.
FAAC’s inCommand 3D incident command and control simulation training system allows for the “next level” of firefighter and hazmat technician training. With InCommand simulation-based incident command and control training system, agencies can find and fill the gaps in their training, knowledge, and preparedness. It is the ideal ICS training solution for emergency operation centers (EOCs), municipal crisis teams, first responders, and other safety and security professionals who must be ready to participate in a coordinated response to complex incidents—even ones they don’t commonly fight. By creating a shared, customizable, instructor-led, interactive and immersive simulation of a hazmat scene, inCommand ensures that the training completed in the emergency management training simulator translates into “real-world” incident management and emergency preparedness that suits your community—without the risks, costs, time, and scheduling challenges associated with large-scale exercises.
Learning Restraint in Hazardous Materials Emergencies
Firefighters are “take action” kind of people. Thinking fast and acting fast saves lives on many scenes. But, as Demetrius A. Kastros (a California-based fire service veteran and instructor with more than four decades of experience) points out:
“The hazardous materials environment is one into which firefighters should NOT go racing, sirens blaring; with hazmat, restraint is the order of the moment. When faced with a hazardous release, we must ask some vital questions before developing our incident action plan (IAP). What is it? How much is there? Is a rescue required? What is the evacuation profile? What are the risks vs. benefits of any action? And my personal favorite, What would happen if we did nothing except isolate and deny entry?”
Using inCommand gives your firefighters an opportunity to practice restraint, to systematically rehearse working through what they see and know how to develop a plan, and even trying out these harder “wait and see”/”contain and deny” approaches that they might tend to avoid in a field emergency response.