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Hazmat First Responders are persons uniquely trained to respond to the release of hazardous materials in the event of an accident, such as a leak or spill, or the intentional release of hazardous substances.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), the fire department is the most likely agency to be called in response to a hazardous materials situation. However, EMS, local law enforcement, and the military are some of the other agencies that are likely to encounter hazardous materials in the course of their duties.

How are Hazardous Materials Handled?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) outlines a risk-based response to hazardous materials situations represented by the acronym APIE which stands for “Analyze, Plan, Implement, and Evaluate.” The system enables responders to break down large-scale disasters into more manageable compartments. One of those compartments is how to handle the hazardous materials themselves.

When handling hazardous materials, it is important to have the appropriate equipment. The kind of equipment needed varies depending on what material is being handled, but some general PPE includes things like gas masks, boots, gloves, overalls, and goggles. Additionally, responders will need things like decontamination pools, hazmat showers, and berms.

What are the Health Risks for Hazmat Responders?

Obviously being a first responder who handles hazardous materials is a dangerous occupation. Even with all the regulatory agencies that try to make the profession as safe as possible for the men and women who respond to crises, it will never be a risk-free occupation.

The EPA lists some of the serious side effects of unprotected interaction with hazardous materials, the list includes a higher risk of cancer, physical deformations or malfunctions, or even behavioral alteration.

Rules and Regulations

There are several governing bodies that regulate the various levels of interaction with hazardous materials.

For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates how workers and companies, including first responders, handle hazardous materials, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates how a release of hazardous materials should be responded to if those materials could impact the environment, and FEMA, which is a division of the Department of Homeland Security, regulates how first responders deal with a hazardous materials situation.

The Three Levels of Hazmat Response

Whenever there is a crisis involving hazardous materials, first responders use a scaled system in order to determine how best to respond to that crisis. One of the benefits of this system is that it outlines which agency would have immediate jurisdiction in responding to the situation. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) describes the three levels as:

Level 1. A level 1 incident is an incident involving hazardous materials that can be effectively responded to by the emergency response entities in the immediate vicinity of the crisis. This would include agencies like local fire departments, EMS crews, and local law enforcement. Part of making this determination is whether these agencies have the appropriate training, equipment, and resources to respond to the situation.

Level 2. A level 2 incident is an incident that is of a certain magnitude that local agencies like fire departments, EMS, or local law enforcement could not respond to the situation. In a level 2 crisis federal agencies, state agencies, or regional response teams may be required to intervene. A level 2 crisis can also pose a risk to the environment or to the public.

Level 3. A level 3 incident is beyond the capabilities or resources of state or regional agencies and requires the invention of federal agencies. Level 3 incidents generally pose extreme, immediate, and long-term risks to the public and the environment.

Equipment Needed for dealing with Hazmat

Responding effectively to incidents involving hazardous materials involves being prepared. Part of that preparation means having the right equipment. Here are descriptions of the types of equipment that first responders regularly employ in the course of their duties.

PPE. OSHA outlines four levels of PPE for first responders who will be interacting with hazardous materials. These levels vary depending on the materials that first responders are handling.

  • The lowest level (D) involves basic PPE like gloves, boots, overalls etc. Level D does not require respirators.
  • Level C requires an air respirator (APR) and “non encapsulated chemically resistant clothing.”
  • Level B consists of a positive pressure respirator (SBCA or SAR). Level B is the highest level of respirator with the lowest dermal protection.
  • Level A involves the same respiratory requirements as level B but with a fully-encapsulated TECP suit for maximum dermal protection.

Berms/Pools. A berm is a container with low walls that allows personnel to easily climb in and out. The purpose of a berm or pool is to contain hazardous materials and to prevent them from spreading. A Berm can be combined with a grate which creates an elevated platform for first responders to stand on while also capturing any excess hazardous substances. Berms and pools are typically constructed of PVC coated fabrics so that they can be quickly deployed in the event of a crisis.

Containers. Like a berm or pool, a container is meant to catch and contain hazardous substances and prevent them from spreading to other areas and/or people. Containers come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. They can be made from hard plastics or other materials. Containers for hazardous materials are typically labeled to indicate what materials they might be used to store.

Decon Showers. A decontamination shower provides a place for hazmat first responders to wash off any hazardous materials that they might have come into contact with while responding to a crisis. A decontamination shower is typically a mobile showering station, that allows personnel to quickly enter after they have finished responding to a hazardous materials situation. The bottom of a decontamination shower is often a berm or pool that allows first responders to easily step in and out after showering.

Decon applications

  • Personnel and equipment for nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological events
  • Fire departments with hazmat teams and CST teams
  • The WMD Civil Support Teams
  • National Guard teams assist state governors in preparing for and responding to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN)


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