Plugging the Experience Drain in Hazmat Response

As a metaphor for picturing the maintenance of preparedness, imagine a number of 5-gallon buckets, where each one represents some aspect of readiness – detection, personal protective equipment (PPE), communications, training, etc. Each bucket is filled with water andeally each would stay filled representing a steady state of preparedness.

In reality, though, each of these buckets has a hole in it and they are all constantly leaking. Each bucket leaks at a different rate, and the hole sizes can vary unpredictably with time. The challenge is to keep each bucket from drying out. Unfortunately, the training bucket may be drying out for many response organizations. Specifically, detection skills are weakening across the first responder space. To examine the reasons for this loss of competency, the following success story illustrates how to move forward.

Passing the Baton

There was a lot of competency built up in the first responder space in the post-9/11 era. However, 15 years post-9/11, many of the professionals who honed their skills in the years after 9/11 have or are soon to retire and with them goes competency that many times is not replaced. For a number of reasons, it seems that the baton of gas detection expertise is not being passed onto the next generation. A lot of wisdom and knowledge is being lost.

In one scenario, a county hazardous materials (hazmat) team did a drill with a well-outfitted, well-trained, motivated, young federal response team. Before the federal team could finish turning on all of its cutting-edge detection technologies, the oldest guy on the county team had already solved the gas detection challenge of the drill using “old-school” colorimetric technologies. He was having a soda and resting before the new technology had even gone down range. Many hazmat responders reject colorimetric tubes as an old, unsophisticated technique that has a short shelf life.

When one gets “lost” during a challenging gas/vapor response, the first next step after common first-in five sensor multi-gas detectors should be tubes. There is a strong correlation between gas detection competency and routine usage of tubes. In a colorimetric tube course, entitled “The older I get the more I like tubes,” when asked who has used tubes this year, mostly grey-haired students raise their hands. The lesson here is that sometimes older techniques and wise responders can beat youth and advanced technology. 

Rotational Rules

As someone who has provided both product-specific and gas detection theory training to the hazmat space for over 20 years, true gas detection competency starts after five years of practice. One might be able to be trained to know how to turn on and run the wide array of detection technologies available to response teams in just two years of training. Truly understanding how a variety of detection technologies fit together in the big picture takes five or more years. One of the fundamentals about gas detection is that sometimes the big picture is made up of many smaller pictures. However, organizations that rotate personnel at two- to three-year cycles make it difficult to maintain true competency because it is hard for them to assemble the big picture from many different technologies. They may not even know all the technologies they should be using. Wisdom is earned over time, not taught. 

The “CSI Effect”

The CSI effect is a belief held by some that forensic science television dramas, such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, influence American jurors to expect more forensic evidence in order to convict defendants of crimes. In 2007, CSI Miami introduced a RAE Systems MiniRAE 2000 into its plot line for an episode (“A Grizzly Murder”). In that episode, the show overrepresented the photoionization detector (PID) to have theentification capabilities one would associate with a portable gas chromatograph/mass spectroscopy (GC/MS) device rather than the simple sniffer that a PID is in reality. As applied to the first responder/hazmat space, some people seem to believe that “magic” technological solutions can solve every problem. Reliance in this “magic” tends to be higher in younger generations rather than older generations.

Technology may even work against responders. Years ago, new hazmat team members were assigned the, potentially tedious, role of calibrating detectors by hand. This ultimately gave these people “muscle memory” from pushing the buttons and turning the dials of the detectors, and they gained competency and experience that ultimately benefited them during actual responses. They may have ultimately graduated to the role of the “detector person” for the team. With the advent of automatic calibration or “docking” stations, new team members do not gain hands-on experience during the relatively low-risk process of calibration. That calibration station is never going to graduate to become the detector guy!

The Ingredients to a Successful Long-Term Program

Throughout North America and the world, some programs are able to maintain a consistency of competency while others do not. Programs remain consistently good due to:

  • Money: Ultimately, program success is based on money to pay for personnel, equipment, and training. More money makes it easier to remain successful.

  • Leadership: Often a charismatic or politically connected leader can build a program and keep it going for years only to have it atrophy after their departure.

Massachusetts – A Success Story

An example of a state program that has consistently successfully maintained competency is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (MA). In 1980, there was a phosphorous trichlorode spill in Somerville, MA, and the response was deemed less than adequate, which led to the formation of a statewide hazmat response program. Now, 14 regional state response groups are available for hazmat response. Each responder receives a yearly stipend that counts toward his or her retirement. This provides both immediate incentive to conduct hazmat respond and a heavy incentive to stay with it into retirement. That way experience is not lost. Yearly training requirements maintain competency and the bar to enter is high. Yet, there is a waiting list to join the teams.

  • Six Regional Response Teams are strategically located for a maximum of a 1-hour response anywhere in the Commonwealth. The regional teams also support local fire departments with technical information and specialized equipment. 

  • In 1982, the governmental officials created a task force to investigate the most uniform and cost-effective way to address hazardous materials emergency response. It was determined that a regionalized approach to response would be the most effective. The Commonwealth was then divided into six regions, by fire district, and a response team was staffed for each of the six districts.

  • In 1994, through cooperative efforts of the Executive Office of Public Safety, Fire Chiefs’ Association of Massachusetts, the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Association of Hazardous Materials Technicians, a proposal was made to the state’s administration and legislature for establishment of a funding mechanism to create a standardized regional response for the mitigation of all hazardous material incidents. A bond fund was issued for the creation of the program to establish a statewide, standardized, hazardous materials regional emergency response plan. The funding enabled the Commonwealth to provide state-of-the-art equipment and training.

Detectors Need Detectives to Make the Right Decisions

It is important to note that detectors are essentially dumb devices that sense and output a number. They are highly dependent on the person using the device to interpret numbers and make an educated assumption on what they mean. Even in the future (represented by the “Star Trek” TV shows and movies), they gave the tricorder to Spock, the science officer. Put another way, even the “magical” tricorder needed to be interpreted by the most intelligent person on the spaceship. Training, experience, and knowledge are the answer.

Christopher Wrenn

Christopher Wrenn is the vice president of Americas sales for AEssense Corp., a Silicon Valley developer and manufacturer dedicated to providing innovative technological solutions for plant growers worldwide. Previously, he was senior director of sales and marketing for Environics USA, a provider of sophisticated gas and vapor detection solutions for the military, first responder, safety, and homeland security markets. He was also a key member of the RAE Systems team. He has extensive experience teaching gas and vapor detection and has been a featured speaker at more than 100 international conferences. He has written numerous articles, papers, and book chapters on gas/vapor detection and received the following awards: 2011 “Outstanding Project Team Award,” in recognition of outstanding service and dedication to the Real Time Detection Registry Team presented by the AIHA (American Industrial Hygiene Association) President; 2015, received the James H. Meidl “Instructor of the Year” award at The Continuing Challenge, Sacramento, CA presented by CA State Fire Marshal; and 2016, received the “Level A Award” from the International Hazardous Materials Response Team Conference “For your Leadership Service and Support to the Hazardous Response and Training Program.” He can be reached at



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