10 Things You Should Know Before Buying Hazmat/Chemical Emergency Technologies

Nov. 30, 2011
Knowing what to look for and which questions to ask before you buy hazmat/emergency response software will help you to make the smart choice. You don’t want to realize you made the wrong decision when a chemical incident is underway.

EHS professionals in many industries – especially oil, gas and chemical – know the inherent risks associated with operations and the potential for a release of hazardous materials via fire, explosion, leak or other means. To plan for and take the proper actions to minimize the event’s environmental, health and safety impact, private and public sector EHS and emergency response personnel may be considering the purchase of specialized hardware or software.

There are a number of hazmat/chemical emergency technologies software choices available to you from companies located in the United States, Canada and Europe; even the U.S. government offers a solution. Here are the questions you should ask:

Does the technology provide a high degree of information accuracy?

Nothing could be more relevant and critical than this single element. When a chemical release occurs, lives are at stake – the lives of your company’s employees, contractors and site visitors plus, potentially, the community a large. The technology you choose must provide a high degree of accuracy in terms of the decision-making information it generates. Ask vendors how accurate their solutions are.

Some products’ information and projections could best be described as “rough guesstimates.” Would you want to trust your life, the lives of your co-workers and residents who live near your facility to a product that delivers that level of accuracy?

What independently derived, validated information can vendors provide that authenticates their products’ accuracy?

Will you receive real value and a return on your investment?

As with any product purchase, you must assess the initial purchase price and any reoccurring costs against the real value you are getting for your investment. Products in this space can cost thousands of dollars. Are they truly worth that price?

Do they really deliver the functionality and accurate information you will need in an actual hazmat/chemical emergency or would you be better off spending your company’s money on something else? Are there cheaper alternatives that will give you the fundamental information you need to prepare for and respond to a chemical event without the expensive price tag? What guarantees does the vendor provide as to the performance of their product?

Such alternatives do exist including the CAMEO suite with ALOHA and MARPLOT, so spend some time looking at them.

What foundational elements is the product built upon?

Technology only is as good as its foundational elements. Ask the vendor about the base on which his or her software is built. You need to know the language in which it is written and the architecture it employs.

What databases, sub-routines and add-ons are incorporated in the product? You want to ensure they are considered to be the industry standard in today’s IT environment. Does the vendor consider his or her product to be state-of-the-art and technologically up-to-date and why? The longer a product has been around, the less likely it is that it will be up-to-date in this area.

Your corporate IT department may be of assistance in interpreting the answers to these questions, which leads us to the next question:

Is it compatible with your corporate IT infrastructure?

Your corporation’s information technology professionals especially will be concerned about this. Your company undoubtedly has corporate IT standards. These standards relate to many factors associated with the purchase and implementation of computer software and hardware within the corporate environment.

Ask the vendor if his or her products are enterprise-class and will comply with your corporate IT standards and requirements. Will the product run on your servers or will it be relegated to an isolated PC somewhere in your company? You may wish to get your IT department involved early in your product research.

Has the software kept pace with advancements in technology?

Is the software solution you are considering keeping pace with changes in technology? Can it effectively function with today’s tablets, pads and smart phones? By effectively function, I mean can it deliver the scope of functionality and information, both graphical and text-based, needed to respond to the hazmat/chemical event? Does the software actually run on smart devices?

What about the user interface for the product? Does it resemble today’s commonly used interfaces, such as those employed in Windows 7 or MAC, or is it based on old menu structures that require you to drill down through many menus to ultimately get to the information you need, as the clock is ticking and lives are threatened?

Some additional questions to ask: Does the software run on the latest versions of Windows? Is it or will the product be cloud-based?

Is the software intuitive and easy to learn and use?

The faster you effectively are able to respond to a hazmat/chemical incident the better, as lives and property may be in jeopardy. Therefore, any technology you employ to help you plan for and respond to such an incident must be easy to learn and use without the need for ongoing and often costly training. Carefully examine the product during any demonstrations you receive.

Some questions to consider: How does the user interface look and work? Does it seem intuitive and easy to grasp? How long will it take the average user to obtain the essential information needed to respond to a real chemical emergency? What training is available and how complicated is it for those who will be tasked with utilizing the product in an emergency?

It is a good idea to examine the available training materials and manuals, as well as any help functionality that may be embedded in the product or available online.

Beware of claims regarding how fast a user can get essential information from a product. Sure, there always will be the so-called “super users” of any technology, those who can deploy it with the highest degree of speed and dexterity. Nevertheless, remember that the personnel who most likely will be tasked with employing such technologies in your company typically will not interact with the product at that level. When an actual hazmat/chemical emergency is underway, the technology must be easy to use, even if your personnel have not been working with it on a day-to-day basis.

Does it speak your language?

In order for you and others to learn and effectively employ a hazmat/chemical emergency technology, it must “speak” your language. In other words, the software itself, available training classes, training materials, user’s manuals, help data – whether incorporated into the product or available online – and technical support must be available in your language. So be sure to ask about each of these items.

Who uses the technology and how?

Speak with some of the product users and ask them about their experiences in setting up and using the technology. Do the customers employ the technology on a day-to-day basis as part of standard operations? Do they keep upgrading the product? Have they experienced problems and issues with the product?

You also want to discover how effective it was during a real chemical incident. The fact that they use the technology for drills and mock exercises is great, but in the end, it’s how intuitive, fast and accurately the technology works in a real emergency that counts, since only then are lives and property truly at stake.

And remember, the number of customers who have purchased a product over time is not the key indicator of its value or effectiveness. There were plenty of people who bought and/or tried to use OS/2, OpenDoc, AT&T EO and more.

Do structures get in the way?

During a hazmat/chemical release, terrain can have a significant impact on a technology’s ability to deliver reliable information regarding the incident. This especially is true in environments where the size and density of buildings may bias a product’s analysis and information. Some products simply do not work very well in these circumstances.

If your facility has many large structures, if you are situated very close to an urban center or if you are a fire/hazmat organization located in an urban environment, some products may not be right for you. So ask vendors how their products address your situation.

How worthwhile are their product enhancements and technical support?

It is fairly typical in today’s corporate software environment for you to be asked to pay extra money, and a sizable sum at that, for ongoing support, new releases and bug fixes. Again, you must examine the true value you will receive from participating in these costly programs:

➤ What is the scope and utility of the benefits you will receive by participating?

➤ Are you likely to use many, or even any, of those benefits?

➤ How likely are you to use phone support from a vendor, assuming that they offer such support?

➤ Does available live technical support speak your language? Do support materials come in your language?

➤ Do the upgrades vendors provide to their products contain meaningful new or enhanced functionality that you truly need and will use? Review the last couple of versions/releases of products to see what enhance-ments have been made.

➤ How many bug fixes are included in each new version of the technology?

Doing your homework before you purchase any hazmat/chemical emergency technology can save you money, headaches, frustration and embarrasment, so ask plenty of questions and get informed.

Chris Cowles is a marketing executive who has worked in a wide array of industries, including technology, automotive, manufacturing, health care and more. His consulting firm, Maven Marketing Ventures, is a strategic marketing consultancy that provides marketing services to organizations in both the private and public sectors. Chris can be reached at [email protected].

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