The HazMat Guys

Having survived twenty seven years on a state-wide regional response hazmat team, I was exposed to leaders not only in my own local fire department, but also within the 25 different departments across Southeastern Massachusetts.

And with different leaders comes a variety of different leadership styles.

As a little background into how we created our leadership structure and handled team management: team members were elected into positions to manage the day to day business – to attend meetings, check and calibrate equipment, and to participate in sub-committee meetings to handle team issues state-wide. This gave us the ability to have a level of consistency across the state, such as maintaining state-wide Standing Operating Procedures (SOP’s), and ensuring all trucks were equipped with the same devices and tool boxes.

However, when it came to how teams actually handled incidents, that level of consistency in was more difficult to achieve – and a lot of these inconsistencies had to do with different leadership decisions.

The specific team that I was assigned to responded to over 100 communities and was made up of all ranks, from chief to firefighter, in 25 different departments, some small and rural and some large and urban. According to the (sometimes dreaded) Incident Command System (ICS) principles, the first Haz Mat (HM) tech to arrive was in charge and the HM Branch Team leader worked side by side with the local incident commander.

During incidents, regardless of the task you are given, you need to know how to manage (or lead) the position you hold and the tactics, strategies, and leadership required.

“But what if I don’t know what to do?!”

Merriam-Webster defines leadership as:

  • the office or position of a leader
  • capacity to lead
  • the act or an instance of leading
  • leadership molds individuals into a team (Harold Koontz & Cyril O’Donnell)

Whatever position of leadership you hold at an incident, it’s important to keep this definition in mind. While you may not be ready to tackle a specific incident that may seem foreign to you, you must be capable of assisting in another team position to set the incident up for success.

This is not just handing off your position! This is being honest about your capabilities and leading from the learning zone!

What is the learning zone?

Having the capacity to lead can come easy or be a struggle. As team members arrive, it’s human nature to be drawn to your position of comfort. Your comfort may be the entry guy, the science guy, or the decon guy – but some incidents do not allow such assignments.

George Ambler, a well known speaker on the topic of leadership, describes three zones of leadership:

  1. The Comfort Zone.The comfort zone is where we spend most of our time. As the name implies it is the place of comfort, it is safe, easy and predictable.
  2. The Learning Zone.The learning zone is the most important; this is the space between your comfort zone and your danger zone. This is where you push the boundaries of your existing skills and experience. This is where real learning and growth takes place.
  3. The Danger Zone.The danger zone is the place where you are stretched too far, over-stressed and unable to lead.

I encourage anyone in the hazmat world to operate in the “Learning Zone”. At incidents, stand close to those senior hazmat team members at any position to pick up the tricks of the trade. Many local and state academies have excellent training in leadership. The National Fire Academy has several courses in hazmat response and incident management; not only is course content excellent, but spending time with classmates is worth as much as the knowledge you learn during the class.

Early in my career, I had an experience in my “learning zone” that I’ll never forget. Shortly after the recent delivery of our first Jerome meter, we responded to a rural community that had a significant mercury spill in their one and only emergency room. This closed down the ER forcing them to set up operations in a local high school gym. I was the (unlucky) team leader first to arrive, and the second and third technician were assigned to work the Jerome meter as we set up to ensure any and all results were accurate.

As a leader, it’s important to understand the impact of your decisions. We are in the business of assessing risk. Our decisions affect our staff, other responders, and the public; evacuations, closing of roads and businesses all have an impact on the community that we do not see since we’re busy handling the HM incident! It can create a significant financial impact on all those involved.

Closing down an ER is not a small decision, but I had to operate in the “learning zone” and figure things out.

As with most of us, leadership traits come with time, experience on the job, and our mentors who take or took the time to explain their actions and to explain what and why they did what they did at any given incident.

So what can you do today to start operating in your learning zone for leadership?

  • Have your hazmat team create a mentorship program. We have had great success when a new team leader has a senior team member as his “aid” to stand by his/her side
  • Take classes on leadership.
  • Push your personal limits. You maybe the new tech, but take classes and new and old topics
  • Stay current. You may not have to read every trade magazine, but take some time on the many websites, podcasts and classes outside of your local response area.
  • Take time to time sit back and ask am I ready? And are we ready?

Many years ago, early in my HM career the HM Team was activated to a neighboring community’s nuclear power plant. I picked up my hazmat truck, and drove it to the incident. And I was the first one there, and no one wanted the team leader position….

The plant was in an “outage” for refueling. The nature of the incident was that they relined some of the piping with resin. They added a catalyst to the resin to liquefy it and pump it through the piping to realign the pipes. The catalyst was added too close to some air intakes and introduced ammonia fumes into the reactor building. I remember clearly looking into the control room as we vented the building and seeing folks operating the plant with SCBA on…

I had never experienced an incident like this, and I knew my decisions would have an impact on a significant site and significant personnel, including my own.

A short while later, after readings were in a safe area, the plant management asked me:

“Is it safe to go back into my nuclear reactor building”?

This was not a question I ever expected to hear – and definitely increased my awareness for how to remain forever in the learning zone. How would you have responded to this question?