Preparing for the Ultimate Scenario

14In the early 1990s we in New Mexico had to take a long, hard look at the implications of having radioactive material and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in our state. The Department of Energy had tapped us to become home of its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and tens of thousands of shipments of radioactive waste would be transported through our communities. It was a huge challenge and our career first response departments had to learn to be prepared for any mishaps or disasters.

We’ve succeeded in doing that and I believe that what we’ve learned over the years can help other communities that today are looking at the implications of WMD response.

Our first step was to form regional response teams from the career departments that stepped forward to deal with this challenge. During our early years these teams assisted each other with training, equipment reviews, and most importantly, formation of assessment committees to review standard operating procedures and operational guidelines for safety and Occupational Health and Safety Administration compliance. This provided us with several well-equipped teams capable of technician-level response to industrial and transportation accidents anywhere in the state.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001 and the nation suddenly focused on the threat of WMD. We did the same. Previously, our funding had been limited. Creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created a new source of funding—but that also led our teams to examine our funding priorities.

Building a strategy
We knew that an overall strategy was critical. We started to build that strategy by clarifying our mission.

We began to identify the numbers and training levels of responders in our area using nationally-accepted response levels of awareness, operations, technical and specialized expertise. Since we’re in a rural area of the state most of our responders were trained to deal with rural events. We also inventoried our equipment levels.

One very important action we took was to take a realistic look at the level of commitment that agencies in the region were willing to make to this mission and the operational level they wanted to attain.

We knew we had to transform ourselves from a HAZMAT response team into an asset capable of technical and specialized response to a terrorist incident, whether at the local, regional, state or federal level. We weren’t just a typical fire-based response team anymore nor were we just plugging HAZMAT leaks and limiting environmental impact after a spill. Now we were part of a much larger national effort that included all aspects of local emergency response plus state and federal response assets and responders. The actions of our response team could have a direct affect on the criminal outcome of an incident.

Realizing this, we incorporated tactical response law enforcement officers into our team. Although they weren’t HAZMAT technicians, they were familiar with personal protective equipment (PPE) operations and they provided security and support to other team members. They also assisted in evidence collection and chain of custody issues.

In a true WMD event, there exists a strong possibility that HAZMAT personnel will need to be trained in emergency medical and specialized technical rescue in addition to normal operations. This represented a paradigm shift for us. Now our personnel would fill the role of a true special all-hazards and operations team.

During this self-assessment we looked for “best practices” in WMD response. We didn’t have to look too far. The New Mexico 64th Civil Support Team was a great example of what we were striving to achieve. They had developed the training requirements, made the equipment selections and developed policy.

From all this we learned that no one team can respond to and complete a WMD operation. It will take multiple teams days or weeks to handle an incident. With that in mind we wanted to standardize our operations, detection equipment and PPE as much as possible. This allowed for a seamless transfer of these elements between teams during operational periods.

Getting trained
Once the road map for the team was laid out we started by looking at training opportunities. With the thousands of classes offered to emergency responders you would think there would be a nationally recognized HAZMAT technician class that fits the basic needs of the fire service. We have yet to find that class.

This is not to say that such classes don’t exist–it’s just that we haven’t found one that covers all the aspects of a true HAZMAT/WMD team. Classes at the California Traffic Safety Institute, the International Association of Fire Fighters, state academies and federal agencies covered different aspects of what we needed. We assembled a combination of classes that together produced well-rounded team members. It helped us to always keep our local needs in mind as we did our planning.

We found a good resource for technician-level competencies in the National Fire Protection Association’s Standard 472. This consensus document provides levels of proficiencies for all levels of response to HAZMAT incidents.

But we also stopped trying to train all team members to the same level of proficiency. Early on we felt we needed a team in which all personnel were equally proficient and could rotate through all operational areas. That was easily accomplished when we operated as a basic response team. But today advancements in technology, equipment and scope of operations make that nearly impossible. Now we initially train personnel to be good suit and entry personnel. This is not to say that all members are not HAZMAT technicians or that people aren’t required to meet minimum requirements to be team members. However once they gain some field experience they then specialize in areas such as analysis, detection equipment setup, repair, strategy and tactics.

Plan, plan and plan
When you look at the inconceivable number of plans being disseminated by local, state and federal agencies, it’s hard to believe that those of us with administrative duties ever have time to respond to emergencies. Although overwhelming at times, planning and policies for a HAZMAT team are critical not only to the team’s success but the well being of its personnel.

We found that looking at other teams’ plans and policies was a great starting point for formulating our own—and I encourage other HAZMAT directors to do the same. At the same time, we kept in mind our department’s level of response, training, PPE, detection equipment, procedures and action levels.

Our response procedures incorporated strategic priorities, tactical operations, including monitoring and sampling techniques, establishment of control zones and methods for processing contaminated victims and personnel. It’s important to know who is in charge before an incident occurs, so we worked out the jurisdictional issues related to command and control.

As with any HAZMAT incident, initial isolation and decontamination procedures limit the spread of the hazardous materials and protect responding personnel and the public. It’s important to establish clearly defined operational zones for the first personnel on the scene to handle the incident until fully qualified technicians arrive. These early procedures will provide personnel with quantitative exposure or dose rates for safe operations.

As every firefighter knows, the job is always easier when you have the proper tools. HAZMAT/WMD response is no different. Instrumentation and technology along with other response equipment has changed greatly since 9/11. And although this is making the actual response easier and more efficient it also brings new challenges for response teams. (Technology selection is explained in more detail in the sidebar.)

It’s also important to look at the teams in your area with whom you may work during a large-scale incident. For us that was the New Mexico Civil Support Team. By incorporating their operational setup into our standard operational procedures we allowed a seamless transfer from team to team. We also cross-trained personnel on equipment, evidence collection, decontamination and communications.

When we thought we were ready to go, we tested our plan, equipment and personnel. If we’re going to protect our communities, states and the nation, we have to identify our weaknesses. Every exercise—whether small scale, tabletop or full-scale– helped us to identify shortcomings and problems but also gave us the time to find and fix them when we weren’t on the line.

We as the nation’s responders must continue to prepare and plan for worst case scenarios. We must continue work on inter and intra-state mutual aid plans, develop a national certification and identification system for HAZMAT, WMD, special hazards and operation teams and have a national database available to incident commanders to detail team locations and their assets and capabilities. We can no longer sit back and wait for someone else to do this for us.

Evaluating the equipment
You would never buy a car without driving it. Why would you pick an expensive instrument to detect hazardous substances out of a catalogue and send firefighters into a hot zone without first field-testing the instrument?

That was the challenge facing us in New Mexico and we learned some valuable lessons from it.

Today’s manufactures all have demonstration units and they’re more than willing to allow you to evaluate it. Remember to look at the basics, like:

  • Overall cost and maintenance. Ask the manufacture and verify with other users the annual cost of operation and maintenance. Some instruments require little to no yearly maintenance and others have annual maintenance that may approach 10 percent of the acquisition cost;
  • Ease of use and training complexity;
  • Environmental limits of the machine including high and low operating temperatures and altitude limitations;
  • Is the equipment fireman-proof? Responders are not known for being easy on equipment and there are many instruments out there that only belong in a laboratory setting;
  • Power supply. Does the instrument use regular batteries or only rechargeable ones? How long does it operate on a charge and how long does the recharge take?

When selecting equipment don’t look at just the new high tech gear. This equipment has its place and is invaluable to a team but simple, time-proven devices also fill important needs. One priority is redundancy: We need to be able to verify our results on at least two devices and also have backup equipment, because things break.

Remember the mission and the nature of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive response: Teams need the ability to detect, identify and mitigate the situation. Many instruments detect substances but do not identify them. Teams must also incorporate the use of equipment into daily operations in order to increase the proficiency of team members.

One area of instrumentation that all teams should look at is infrared and Raman spectroscopy, which uses lasers to determine the molecular composition of materials. These new generations of detection equipment allow responders to quickly identify unknown materials. In the case of Raman technology (named after Nobel Prize-winning physicist CV Raman) the analysis can be performed through a clear container, further increasing responder safety. Both types of devices are effective for detecting chemical warfare agents and corrosive and toxic industrial chemicals.

Help is also available in the area of radiological detection and identification equipment. Testing of commercially available detectors continues to be sponsored by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. The test results will be made available to emergency response agencies to consider in the selection process.

Think about the environmental extremes in which you operate and your average staffing when selecting your other equipment for decontamination and PPE. It does you no good to have an elaborate decontamination corridor that requires ten personnel to set up if on average you can only assign four people to decon. Our team operates in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains at elevations up to 7,500 feet and temperature ranges from below 0 degrees Fahrenheit to the mid 90s. We found equipment that worked wonderfully at 75 degrees but was useless at 20 degrees.

By Chief David Pasquale
Chief David Pasquale has 32 years of fire service experience in New York and New Mexico. He is currently Chief of Raton Fire and Emergency Services, whose Special Hazards and Operations Team covers all of northeast New Mexico. Pasquale has over 20 years of HAZMAT response experience and is an adjunct instructor for the state of New Mexico. He currently serves on the Stakeholders Committee for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office of the Department of Homeland Security.

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