So often, rural agencies will assume that by declaring, “We Don’t DO HazMat!”, that they are exempt, or excluded, from any formal Hazardous Materials responses and training. Nothing could be farther from the truth! They are not only responsible; it is part of being an all-hazards agency. The choice is no longer ours whether we are, or are not, an all hazards agency. The public expectation has gone far beyond that. So, we must prepare for the worst, and train to our best!
“Rural Engine 1…Respond to a large fuel spill at the Corner Convenience Store. A vehicle ran into a fuel pump and there is electrical sparking.”
“County Engine 6…Respond to a propane gas leak at the Out in the Boonies Bottle Fuel Gas Storage Yard.”
“Tailboard Volunteer Rescue 4…Respond to an unknown odor at the Very Small High School Chemistry Lab.”
“Country Ambulance 3…Respond to 123 Sticks Lane for an officer down at a clandestine lab operation.”
In so many rural areas a common mantra has become, “We don’t respond to HazMat calls.” But, is that a realistic view of rural HazMat responses? In reality, a rural department has the potential to face the very hazards and responses of a large urban department, but without the manpower, a fully equipped HazMat Team, or the appropriate training. A regional HazMat Response Team frequently has 4+ hours response time to an event out in a rural area. What are you going to do in the meantime?
In the last few decades, every type of decal has been added to the firefighter’s helmet, simply because “they have the big red truck.” It has become such an anticipated role by the public, and other public safety agencies, we simply can’t say, “No, we’re not going to do that here at this department!”
One of our primary roles in the fire service is now EMS. This equates to more calls than any other type of fire service response. If you’re old enough, do you remember in the 1970s and 1980s (and even still some places today) fire chiefs everywhere said “NO, we’re not gonna do that!” How’d that work out? The same can be said about technical and rope rescue, swiftwater rescue, trench rescue, extrication (both basic and advanced), MCIs, tactical medicine, and, yes, even HazMat. In a rural area, its still, “Call the big red truck!”
There are a myriad of excuses why a rural agency doesn’t train for HazMat emergencies. “We don’t have the funding…”, “We can’t afford all the equipment…”, “Our volunteers can’t (or won’t) attend a 3-day course…”, “We only do Awareness-level…”, and so on.
There are probably more excuses than actual number of HazMat calls in a rural area. However, a rural area has the potentiality of deadly HazMat exposures due to the nature of rural community activities (anhydrous ammonia with farming, meth labs, etc.) So, shall we break down a few of the excuses above?
- The training is available and provided for free through state partners and state training agencies by grants. Emergency Response Guides are free AND mandatory in every response vehicle.
- A basic “duffle bag spill kit” can be purchased for less than $100 through major fire supply dealers.
- Those that are untrained should not be responding to the incident. They are a serious danger on the scene of a HazMat incident.
- Unless you never leave your station, at some point and time, you will HAVE to upgrade from Awareness to Operations level for public safety.
Often, it’s the lack of the Chief’s, or Company Officer’s, “enthusiasm” that dissuades, or even poisons their personnel’s’ mindset from attending the training, or, even worse, not respecting the inherent dangers associated with HazMat responses. It could very well cost you a firefighter’s life!
In September of 2007, the Avra Valley Fire District in Arizona was fined $366,000 by the Arizona Industrial Commission for “willful violations” in regards to a SINGLE HazMat response. The violations were numerous and several were KEY to why they were fined so heavily.
Why so much?
Here are some of their violations:
- Not ensuring that appropriate personal protective equipment was brought and worn to a hazardous-materials site. That site was the March 14 collision.
- Not developing an emergency response plan to handle anticipated emergencies. (They had not updated their HazMat Response SOGs in years and they had not kept up-to-date with HazMat Refresher courses.)
- The designated HazMat Response vehicle in their SOGs had not been operational in over 6 months.
- Multiple responders, including Fire, EMS and LEOs were made sick due to the hazardous material (an acid) and transported to hospitals from the scene.
Detractors will say, “But the fines were reduced after all was said and done. They were…to $183,000.00! Can your fire department or district take a hit like that? I didn’t think so. And then came all the personal injury lawsuits. Let that sink in for just a minute. This also leaves many questions.
- Who was the qualified HazMat Incident Commander? (There’s a 3-day course for that!)
- Why were hot/warm/cold distance zones not established?
- Why weren’t responding agencies staged by the first due engine company?
- Even more basic…where was the use of their ERG to establish safe exposure distances?
If you look them up on the web you’ll see they self-describe as a “rural department”. Like all fire departments, they still have to hold up to certain standards and responsibilities. This one failed HazMat response came with a hefty price tag. The good news is that they learned from it, and moved forward.
So, what’s the answer?
Train…Prepare…Retrain…Be Ready! Write applicable and appropriate department-specific HazMat SOGs. “We don’t do HazMat!” is NOT an SOG. Designate someone to be responsible for that aspect of HazMat response and training. If you don’t want to it helps if you find someone on your department who likes HazMat. There’s always at least one! The reality is that you risk great harm to your personnel by not mandating, and incorporating, HazMat training.
A good Chief or Company Officer must encourage their personnel in all endeavors they participate in…do you?
Author: Bud Paine
Fire Chief (Ret.) Bud Paine, NRP, began in the fire service and EMS in the mid-1970s as a career FF/Engineer in northern Arizona. His professional journey has taken him from remote, rural regions on the Navajo Nation, to large urban centers such as Los Angeles and Portland, OR. He is a HazMat Specialist and current Verified AHLS Toxicology Paramedic. He spent more than half of his career as a Special Operations Captain, Arson and HazMat Crime Scene Investigator, HazMat Site Incident Commander, and ultimately “retired” as Chief of a rural volunteer fire district in Arizona. He currently oversees a licensed rural non-profit volunteer Paramedic agency in Idaho that has HazMat Toxicology responses as one of its primary missions. He is also called upon to act as an auditor for regional rural HazMat drills. He moved to Idaho to be closer to family and is married to his wife, Deanna, who is also a volunteer Paramedic with a rural fire district.