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On Scene Research: Strategic and Tactical Importance


Incident Commanders (IC) and Hazardous Materials Control Officer (HMCO) face significant pressures to control and mitigate incidents involving an extremely wide variety of hazardous materials, often under stressful and unstable conditions. The effectiveness and safety of their strategic and tactical decisions is highly dependant upon the quality and completeness of the information they possess.

The chemical, physical and toxicological properties of the materials must be reliably established very early in the incident. Every decision made by the IC and HMCO must contemplate hazards to the first responders, HAZMAT team, general population, victims and the environment. Among the critical decisions that must be made are:

-medical treatment,
-zone establishment and possible expansion,
-entry options and objectives,
-personal protective equipment requirements,
-decontamination procedures,
-monitoring and reporting procedures, and
-additional resources required.

Without adequate research data covering these issues, good decisions cannot be made by the IC and HMCO. Therefore, as early as possible in the incident, HMCO must establish the research officer (RO) and research activity must commence.

The capabilities of individuals to perform research functions are directly related to the quality and quantity of training they have received, augmented by field experiences. Under current NFPA 472 stipulations, in depth chemical training for HAZMAT personnel is addressed either as a prerequisite to, or as an adjunct to specialist level training. This typically entails an 80 hour Hazardous Materials Chemistry course. Thus in selection of personnel for research duties, Specialists should clearly be preferred.

Even with Specialist training, an individual may not be sufficiently equipped to handle the complexity and magnitude of the research required. Therefore, the Research function should always be handled by a team, and should diligently seek to expand the research resources available for consultation.

Especially important as a research resource is access to experts from companies whose products are involved. Good Research personnel will seek to establish communications with industrial experts as quickly as possible, and will diplomatically encourage on scene presence of these experts if they are not already at the scene. CHEMTREC can help to establish these contacts. Good Research personnel will consult a wide variety of information sources (at least three), will collate all their data, will document data and sources, and will provide IC and HMCO with a clear, logical assessment of the situation. They will provide information that permits IC and HMCO to make appropriate decisions that affect every facet of the operation.

With adequate research data in hand, the IC and HMCO are prepared to set their strategy and tactics with a degree of confidence and safety utterly impossible without such data. In addition, when incidents expand or involve multiple materials which may yield reaction (new) products, adequate research will have identified these possibilities and will have permitted contingency planning.

The wise IC and HMCO will recognize the critical importance of adequate research data, will establish research early, will staff research with the most resourceful and chemically literate personnel, and will not establish an offensive posture until the
research is complete and documented. This sensitivity to the role of research in formulating strategic and tactical foundations should be stressed in every Hazardous Materials Incident Commander Training Program.

All Rights Reserved James R. MacNeal 10/24/91