Adding the 'dread factor' to hazmat training

Published:  29 August, 2017

A new simulation device enables firefighters to train for hazmat scenarios in a realistic manner; Hemmingfire talks to its inventor and one of its supporters about the importance of such training.

Talking about Hazsim is the device’s owner and inventor Phil Ambrose, a Fire Captain for the City of Glendale, California; and Jason Rogers, director of North American operations for Hazsim, who is also emergency management director of Delaware County, Indiana.

How do you see the role of the hazmat responder in the fire service?

Phil Ambrose: After 9/11 the focus of hazmat changed, shifting to incidents involving white powders and weapons of mass destruction, but the industrial use and transportation of hazardous chemicals remain the main risks.

A hazmat specialist needs to be skilled in the basics and good at encouraging others to correctly don their PPE since every fire scene is really a hazmat scene when it comes to risks associated with cancer. Also, no matter how much technology we use, from meters and drones to portable mass spectrometers, we still need to be able to stop a leak and properly survey the atmosphere. 

Jason Rogers: The role of the hazmat specialist is constantly evolving. Although it started out in industrial settings and the fire service, many law enforcement agencies and hospitals are getting involved in hazmat because of emerging threats and the production of high-potency opioids. If nothing else, hazmat professionals need to be flexible.

What are the main type of hazmat incidents you see in your daily job and what are the specific hazards?

PA: Based on dispatch, the most common scenario is related to unknown odours – or, as we call it, chasing the ghost. White powders are also very common with the current opioid scare. A few years ago, it was Ebola, before that Anthrax, and now the opioids. 

All of these scare people because of their lethal potential. Synthetic opioids are many times more potent and considered lethal in very small amounts. This frightens people, and it should. In my opinion, a good knowledge of hazmat fundamentals will aid in all these responses. A white powder, even the deadliest, will not by itself jump on you and kill you.  Understanding the basics, and having a consistent systematic approach to these events is critical. 

JR: In my experience, the most common incidents are probably hydrocarbon or gas and oil incidents. These might not seem very exotic, but they are all around us.

What is the most common mistake you see rookies make when they first start out?

PA: That they stop learning after hazmat technician school. Most hazmat technician programmes are several weeks long. Some graduates, especially if they are not currently assigned to a squad, may then let their learning lapse. My message to all such graduates is not to wait for your department’s continuing education to keep up your skills.

What are the main challenges of hazmat training?

PA: For me, it was the lack of realism. For every other aspect of firefighting training, I have worked with live fire to improve my skills. I am also accustomed to working with live patients for EMS skills training. For hazmat, we were faking it to the point that I believe my peers were not taking it seriously.

I invented Hazsim to add the ‘dread factor’ to training.  With Hazsim we can create realistic readings and even add to the stress of the situation by hitting the student with real-time questions via the system. Prior to Hazsim, students were getting all of their information via prompts or cues from the instructor, except for rare cases at facilities that could use live agents. I noticed that students trained in the old way expected the clues and cues and were not using their meters – which were not getting readings in any case  – or developing life-saving, decision-making skills.

JR: Also, keeping your students engaged and entertained at the same time. Adult learning can sometimes be very dry, so keeping students awake in class can be a challenge.

What is the Hazsim system?

PA: The Hazsim Pro looks and sounds like an actual handheld hazmat detection meter but it is controlled by the instructor. This enables realistic meter readings and provides an immersive training environment for the student.  We can also challenge the student with questions relevant to the subject matter via the Hazsim device.

Ultimately, instead of the student expecting verbal cues, they are now forced to rely on good metering skills just as they would have to in a real-life incident.

Why did you develop it?

PA: I believe that the old method of training was risking lives. I am a great believer in the studies that show that dangerous jobs require hands-on interactive training. I am a hands-on learner, as are most of my peers. I felt that with Hazsim I could help improve the safety of my fellow first responders.

Who is currently using Hazsim?

PA: We now have more than 150 systems in use across the US and Canada in both small and large fire departments, oil and gas facilities, training institutions, and the US military.

What has the feedback been like from users so far?

PA: The feedback I get is that the system enables the instructor to create a more realistic and effective learning environment and that they don’t have to damage their front-line equipment in a drill.

JR: No other product gives total control to the instructor in the way that Hazsim does. It truly makes training real for the responders and industrial professionals who are not otherwise able to train in realistic situations. It also allows instructors to fully customise their training to make use of the question and answer feature of the device.

What are the next steps for Hazsim?

PA: Our mission is to improve first responder safety by continually improving the effectiveness and realism of hazmat training. I am not one to sit idle so we have been taking everything we have learned from our customers and will continue to improve the training experience.

JR: We will also be focusing on expanding the company's training services across North America. Our goals for 2018 include boosting sales of the Hazsim system in the European, Middle-Eastern and Australasian markets and then bringing the world’s best trainers to our customers worldwide.

  • Operation Florian

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