What You Can Learn from FEMA's HAZMAT Training Program

FEMA's large-scale HAZMAT training exercises involve dozens of different organizations. What they learn together changes the way an entire community responds to any major emergency.

By Alan S. Brown

It was a disaster. A school bus had crashed into a tank truck, and hazardous chemicals were now oozing closer to children on the ground. One state trooper was already seriously ill after walking through the chemicals to read the placard on the side of the tanker. Responders were milling around or freelancing while commanders tried to set up a communications system that everyone could use. Meanwhile, the local hospital had to close its emergency room because it was now too contaminated to use.

Fortunately, this debacle never really happened. Rather it is a composite of incidents that occur routinely during large-scale training exercises held by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to prepare communities for hazardous materials HAZMAT emergencies.

FEMA's Comprehensive HAZMAT Emergency Response-Capability Assessment Program (CHER-CAP) has changed the way participants respond to any major emergency. "It is a real wakeup call," says Sgt. Don Majure, who participated as part of the Caddo County, La., sheriff's office and is now a volunteer CHER-CAP peer evaluator.

Sheer Size

What sets CHER-CAP apart from other training exercises is sheer size. It involves the usual suspects – fire, police, sheriff, and EMS units – from surrounding communities, as well as their county and state counterparts. It also embraces utilities, industry, hospitals, transit, Red Cross, Salvation Army, nursing schools, ham radio operators and nearby tribal nations.

"In many of these communities, it's the first time they've gotten everybody together," says Mike Hammond, who manages CHER-CAP in FEMA Region X (Northwest). Wayne Rickard, his counterpart in Region VI, concurs: "These groups rarely exercise together as a whole, yet that's exactly the way they would respond to a real-world event."

Rickard knows. He has been leading community exercises in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas since 1990. FEMA built upon Region VI's foundation when it took CHER-CAP national in 2000.

An Exercise Methodology

Rickard takes pains not to call CHER-CAP a "HAZMAT" program. "It's really an exercise methodology," he explains. "It just so happens that it has a HAZMAT component to it, but the actual methodology can be used for anything. You can take out 'HAZMAT' and insert 'hurricane,' 'earthquake,' or 'bioterrorism,' and the methodology still brings the community together."

The program works, says Rickard, because it forces each organization to reconsider its responsibilities, its role, and its ability to support other responders during a major event.

But it also works because its staged events always expose the flaws of even the most carefully conceived plans. Many of the same mistakes occur in every exercise. Here's what you can learn from them:

It takes a village. The emergency plans of organizations cover their own response but rarely take into account the plans of other agencies.

Rickard recalls an exercise that highlighted planning issues among a city's 10 major hospitals. Most expect patrolmen to secure their facilities, but none had told this to the police. Only a few hospitals had decontamination showers, and all of them drained poisons into the municipal water system.

"Each hospital had a good plan if they lost their city water supply," recalls Rickard. "But every single one of them had contracted with the same independent company to provide potable water, and it had only one water truck.

"No way it could provide water in a real emergency, yet each hospital felt comfortable with its plan," says Rickard. The only way to expose the holes in a plan is to bring everyone together in a single exercise.

Recognize the problem. More than 800,000 shipments of hazardous materials occur daily, yet many towns do not realize they are at risk.

"I had one community tell us they had no hazardous materials," recalls Rickard. "Within 30 seconds of standing at a major intersection, I saw a radioactive material placard on a vehicle carrying waste from an oilfield. I spent another 15 minutes at a railroad overpass and counted 70 railcars hauling hazardous material.

"The town immediately realized that while they gauged the problem based on hazardous material spills, they had not given much thought to shipments passing through the community." Likewise, many communities underestimate the problem because they have not had an incident.

Update the plan. Many disaster plans have grown dusty. They may not list new businesses, phone numbers, fire and water districts, evacuation routes and specialized resources. When seconds count, they waste time.

Many professionals have a poor handle on the specific products made, stored, or shipped in their community. "Hazardous materials require product-specific equipment and techniques," says peer evaluator Capt. Neil Gohr of the Hobbs, N.M., Fire Department. "You have to understand what you have and ask if you have the correct level of protection for those products."

Another common problem with plans lies in implementation. Hospitals typically rush to give emergency treatment, but caution is a better policy in HAZMAT emergencies. "Pretty much at every exercise I've ever been to, a contaminated victim walks into the ER and contaminates it," says Gohr.

Practice incident command. HAZMAT incidents are inevitably complex and quickly draw a crowd. The resulting information flow easily overwhelms even the most experienced commander. That is why CHER-CAP exercises use unified incident command.

The approach funnels information to a single incident commander through a small command staff that includes members from fire, law enforcement, EMS and other services. The staff screens incoming issues and either handles them or bucks them up the line and implements the resulting decision. Delegating ensures that a flood of details does not wash away the big picture.

Many regions already practice incident command. Others do not. Practice is the only way to implement it, says Rickard. "The actual scene of a real-world event is not the right place to get to know the leaders of other departments and their management styles," he says.

Train the right people the right way. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists more than 80,000 hazardous chemicals. No one knows them all. But first responders don't have to.

Every HAZMAT shipment has a color-coded placard that identifies the hazard class (poisonous, corrosive, radioactive, etc.). Responders should keep a copy of the Emergency Response Guidebook or placard chart in their vehicle, as well as a pair of binoculars so they can read placard data without approaching the site.

Rickard also trains dispatchers and 911 call center operators. They are a responder's lifelines. "If officers on the scene don't have access to HAZMAT info, dispatchers should have the training and the books, databases, 800 numbers, and online access to help them."

Caddo's Majure concurs. "You can't do it all by yourself," he says. "A chemistry book can tell you every chemical, but I know where to go to get a chemist who will tell me how this chemical will react with another. Teamwork and knowing your resources are the keys to surviving."

Think first. "First responders are trained like Delta Marines to go in there and make something happen," says Majure. "But with hazardous materials, you have to look before you leap."

He and other CHER-CAP evaluators have seen it all. One state policeman walked through a hazardous material spill to read a placard. A medevac helicopter took off with a victim whose off-gassed contaminants would have killed the crew within 8 minutes. Officers routinely order people into hazards.

"They don't think," says Majure. "If you don't know, don't go. If you can't protect yourself, you can't protect someone else. If responders remember those two things, they're going to survive."

Don't overestimate your capabilities. Most communities overestimate their ability to respond. Gohr's town had an unwritten agreement that a local chemical company would assist in any HAZMAT emergency. But everyone was shocked at the length of time it took them to arrive. The town council later budgeted money for the fire department to develop its own HAZMAT team.

Equipment also poses problems. While many departments have HAZMAT suits and equipment, very few have enough for everyone. Crews often show up at the scene in standard bunker gear, which offers scarcely any protection. Some units with B-level suits may rush into A-level emergencies and expose themselves to hazards. Even A-level suits offer less protection as temperatures rise.

"Responders want to save lives, so they may be willing to do things that are not safe," says Rickard. "Sometimes it takes an outside entity to help them understand their limitations."

Plan ahead for communications. Communications are a common failing. Large emergencies may draw a dozen or more organizations, few of which share common radio frequencies. Creating work-arounds while deploying resources is like routing rush-hour traffic over a one-lane bridge: it leaves lots of people waiting around. Sharing plans ahead of time reduces the confusion.

Communications are especially critical in HAZMAT, says Gohr. "In a fire, you rush in and put the fire out. In HAZMAT, you step back, cordon off the area, and research the threat and the equipment you need. Without good communications, other agencies may not receive the information your research turns up."

Include volunteers. Communities that routinely deal with flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes always include volunteers in their plans. They're the ones who provide meals, rehab exhausted responders, and operate evacuation shelters. Members of the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) and Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) often have better equipment than many responders and can help patch together incident communications systems.

"Volunteers are professionals at what they do," says Rickard. "Very often, a community will have an organization, and the responders won't even know its capabilities."

After Training

CHER-CAP exercises expose all kinds of flaws in emergency response. Most organizations work through their turf wars and jurisdictional problems as they realize they cannot do everything themselves.

Yet a one-time exercise is not enough to ensure a community can respond smoothly in the event of an emergency. This is true whether the crisis involves hazardous materials, weather, or terrorism.

"Our first exercise changed our mindset on what we need to do," says Gohr. Shocked at the exercise results, Hobbs increased hazmat training for responders and funded its own hazmat team. Its training exercises now involve local, county, and state agencies in addition to the local hospital and volunteers. It recently completed its third full-scale exercise in 18 months.

"Many responders think the challenge is the exercise, and it is," says Gohr. "But the bigger challenge is what you do with the information once it's given back to you. Where do you go from here?"

Sidebar: CHER-CAP in Action

States select CHER-CAP participants. To qualify, communities need an active local emergency planning committee (LEPC) with an emergency response plan, a local industry partner, and a commitment from a key first-responder agency.

During the months leading up to the event, participants conduct tabletop exercises to seek holes in their plan and develop incident command skills. They also pick an incident scenario. FEMA encourages the community to share information about the specific threat.

"The value in this program is not in testing first responders who show up at the scene but in having different organizations work together," says Rickard. Besides, equipment nearly always malfunctions, and some responders frequently forget previous warnings once the exercise begins to heat up.

The adrenaline kicks in because FEMA makes its exercises as realistic as possible. Accident scenes have included wrecked trucks shrouded by a smoke machine. Volunteer victims are smeared with blood and bruises from a theatrical makeup kit and briefed on the nature of their injury. Some lie inert, others act combatively, and some just wander off in a daze. Family members show up on the scene asking about loved ones. The press storms the barricades.

After it's over, the groups usually hold a lunch. Then the peer evaluators share their impressions. Majure says he always brings his digital camera in case anyone cares to dispute what he has seen.

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