It's impossible to alter the risk factor of a hazmat incident, but firefighters can improve their response through training. - Flickr

It's impossible to alter the risk factor of a hazmat incident, but firefighters can improve their response through training.


The National Chemical Emergency Centre (NCEC) was set up to provide emergency response support to incidents involving hazardous chemicals in 1973. 

Over 40 years, the organization developed in-depth knowledge of the global chemical marketplace and uses this expertise to help customers manage chemicals and business risks through training and actionable advice via a 24/7 telephone emergency response service.

NCEC recently launched a five-webinar series titled, “Eight Phase Approach to Incident Scene Management—a Structured Approach to Safely Resolving Hazmat Incidents.”

The webinar series opens with a concerning statement: “One thing we’ve experienced while delivering training to first responders is that people can be less confident in dealing with hazmat incidents than dealing with other types of incidents, such as road traffic collisions or house fires,” said Dr. Nigel Blumire, training product manager for NCEC.

Blumire explained most firefighters understand the step-by-step approach to traffic collisions or structure fires. “There are checklists that guide everything they do, so they do it correctly,” he said. “But rarely is there a logical and systematic approach for hazmat incidents.”

He cites the low frequency of hazmat incidents as the reason. 

In response, NCEC developed an eight-phase approach to hazmat to help “responders be safe, effective, competent and confident” in their responses to hazmat situations. Their structured approach covers pre-planning for a hazmat incident and tactical planning, implementing a tactical plan, dealing with priority rescues with limited resources, closing down the incident, and post-incident considerations such as crew welfare, debriefing, and sharing lessons learned. 

The Importance of Preplanning

The first NCEC webinar in the series stressed emergency preparedness and prevention through thorough preplanning.

“By carrying out effective preplanning and risk awareness, we can assign the right number of resources to an incident when it occurs and mobilize them earlier. In the end, we may require fewer resources during the peak response than we would if we are behind in planning, or our planning has been ineffective,” Blumire said.

Preplanning starts with understanding the risks. Walk around the facility, identify the hazards that exist, consider a response, then develop training that aids response. Plans also must protect people (even those nearby the facility) and the environment. Consider:

  • How an incident is likely to start,
  • The timelines and the escalation, 
  • Who is likely to be involved, and
  • How you control that involvement.

“Always think about the timeline and always think about how the incident will go. What’s going to occur?” said David Evans, crisis consultant for Corpress Ltd. “Once you’ve identified these things, it sets the scene for what you have to do as you move forward.” 

Blumire advised not to perform planning in a vacuum. Rather, involve external authorities in off-site planning that considers the hazards, the nature of potential incidents, and the proportional response should an incident occur. “The overriding driver has to be protecting people,” Evans stressed. “This includes thinking about the emergency services personnel that will arrive at your site. What do they need?” 

Share Information

A swift response also demands gathering information then sharing it, the webinar panel shared.

“If we are not proactive in assessing risk and gathering information, how do we know what to train for? How do we know what equipment we may need or ensure that crews have suitable access to information to assist them?” Blumire asked. “The answer is we don’t, which increases the level of risk.” 

Gathered information also must be accessible. It might be available on a laptop somewhere, but “that’s not good enough,” said Ian Duckworth, hazmat advisor, UK FRS. “You need different means of obtaining that information. You need a secondary way to access information if the laptop is down.” 

The webinar recommended storing risk data, planning and response information, and standard operating procedures in a database that is accessible to all responders. Firefighters can use mobile data terminals or ruggedized laptops at an incident or training exercise to cross reference the information. 

Train Well and Train Often

Preplanning, however, means little without training. Responders must train in all identified scenarios. An effective response occurs when staff are well trained, their training exercises are realistic and occur regularly, there are clear plans and actions, and everyone understands their responsibilities, Blumire stressed.

To create training, take all information gathered in preplanning and consider what an incident might look like. What will happen and why? “Build training up from, ‘I know I have an incident. What else do I need to know? Who else needs to know? What will we do?’ Then feed the answers to those questions back into realistic training,” reported Evans. 

Blumire added training must be realistic and put people under pressure, so they respond correctly in an actual incident. “Far too often I hear people say, ‘If it was a real incident, I wouldn’t have done it like that,’” he said. “We have a responsibility as training organizers to make sure the training is realistic and really tests the policies, procedures and processes in place.”

The best training blends classroom training with kinesthetic and practical training exercises. Classroom training allows responders to understand the theoretical aspect of response and assists as the training moves into hands-on learning.  

“It’s difficult to respond if we’ve only taken part in classroom learning,” Blumire explained. “It’s so important to get the appropriate balance of training and education for what we’re expecting people to respond to.”

Get the Most Out of Training

The webinar also provided several suggestions to maximize training experiences, including information sharing, creating checklists, and training as a team.

Information Sharing: Provide enough information to train, but don’t make the information too extensive. Evens notes that too often trainers give trainees clean information that reads like a post incident report. “That is unrealistic. When you stand at an actual incident, you are going to get mixed information,” he said. “You won’t always know what else leaked, how big the incident is, or other key attributes. You need to train on: How do you get to the facts you need? And then build a model for how you will respond. You have to learn to live with dirty information.”

Craig Kelsall, resilience manager for Pfizer, agrees, noting first responders may not have all the information they need initially. “But you will have enough to take the first steps, whether it’s a rescue or a decision to stand back and stay safe until you have more information,” he said. 

Make it Practical: Training also must be practical and prepare responders for real situations. Training that builds upon itself helps responders practice the correct actions slowly at first and faster as competency builds. 

Make training succinct and preplanned and give directions and steps that people remember. “The less effort that goes into those first few steps because they recognize what they need to do, the better,” Evans said. “That’s one of the key points of training.” 

Create a Checklist: Though training ingrains response, Evans also suggests creating a checklist of steps and providing them to all responders. “Though you want responders to rely on their training, it’s normal to be unable to process your thoughts in an actual incident,” he said. “Having a checklist to refer to can get responders through their initial reactions.”

Responders can use the checklist to consider:

  • What incident information do I have?
  • What resource information do I have?
  • What risk information do I have?

After the initial assessment, they can decide what to do. “A checklist ensures that when you’ve got radios going, blue lights on and sirens blaring, you’re going to refer to that and settle down. It makes sure you don’t miss anything, and before you know it, you’re in your battle rhythm,” Blumire said.

Train as a Team: Training as a team in realistic scenarios and with other first responders is also critical. “Very few firefighters must face hazardous situations involving high pressure gas, liquid releases, or highly toxic compounds. They are in an unknown world,” Evans said. “By working together in training, the teams can function effectively when a situation occurs.” 

Blumire concludes the webinar by saying: “There’s nothing we can do to alter the risk factor. But what we can do, is increase our familiarity with the response through training.”

Though the NCEC series is on the third webinar, interested parties can still register for the remaining ones at

View recorded webinars on demand at