During the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the nation’s fire departments were suffering between twenty and fifty firefighter deaths and injuries per year due to hazardous materials incidents. “That statistic bothered me,” commented Ludwig Benner, then a hazardous materials specialist with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). “I looked at the numbers of firefighters getting hurt at hazardous materials incidents, and figured out they were many, many times more likely to suffer a hazardous materials-related injury than the second-ranked classification of workers injured in the hazmat field – transportation employees.
“The problem really became evident,” Benner continued, “in 1971. I investigated a HAZMAT accident in Houston where a guy got killed and several other employees were injured. Ironically, the fatality was the HAZMAT training officer and, as it turns out, he and the rest of the firefighters were following the emergency response instructions they were taught.”
“During that investigation a question occurred to me: If these guys were doing what they were trained to do, how did they get themselves wiped out? It had to be the training. After the investigation, I was prompted by a friend and colleague to offer some alternative solutions in terms of HAZMAT training, and agreed to develop and teach on hazardous materials at Montgomery College [Md.].”
Essentially, that was the beginning of what might be called the age of enlightenment for HAZMAT response in the nation’s fire-service community. For the next 10 years, Benner, along with other significant players in the fire-service hazmat-response arena – working in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Chemical Manufacturers Association, the American Association of Railroads, and other national organizations – led a campaign to improve the ways in which firefighters respond to and, of greater importance, think their way through a hazardous-materials emergency.
CHEMTREC, HAZWOPER, and Other Advances
Indirectly, their work (along with several significant hazmat incidents that occurred at the time) laid the foundation for such advances as the formulation of Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response regulations, found in the Code of Federal Regulations. These regulations, commonly referred to as HAZWOPER, are under the jurisdiction of OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration).
Another major step forward was the formation of CHEMTREC, an emergency-response resource for chemical information, funded by the Chemical Manufacturers Association. There were a number of other significant changes and developments along the way that collectively improved the abilities of firefighters across the country to handle hazardous- material emergencies. The net result was a huge reduction in the hazmat-related deaths and disabling injuries that were so common among firefighters in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Back then,” Benner pointed out, “firefighters received HAZMAT training pretty much the same way, following the prevalent fire-service paradigm at the time: attack and extinguish. I wanted to change that paradigm by teaching firefighters the importance of thinking their way through an incident rather than jumping into the middle of something they didn’t really understand. I wanted to show them how to look at a situation, interpret the visual cues, and predict what was going to happen next.”
“Additionally,” he continued, “my training program illustrated how critical it is to start out with a game plan, even if it’s pretty basic. If the situation isn’t going to create a problem, maybe you don’t have to do anything. On the other hand, if it’s going to hurt somebody, you have to figure out how it’s going to hurt them and decide whether or not you can do anything about that.”
A Decisive and Innovative Change
To help firefighters think through a HAZMAT situation, Benner developed an innovative decision-making process, appropriately named DECIDE.
- Detect HM Presence.
- Estimate Likely Harm Without Intervention.
- Choose Response Objectives.
- Identify Action Options.
- Do Best Option.
- Evaluate Progress.
The DECIDE acronym represents key decision-making points that occur during a typical HAZMAT emergency. “The intent of the DECIDE process,” according to Benner, “is to help the responder get ‘ahead of the curve’ during a HAZMAT incident.”
“The goal,” he emphasizes, “is to constantly update the predictions of what’s going to happen next, in order to see how the actions are changing the outcome. With a HAZMAT incident, you have to focus on the outcome. The beauty of the DECIDE process is this: If you can’t make a prediction about what will happen next, you can pinpoint the data gaps that will ultimately allow you to make a prediction.”
Now many years removed from his days of teaching hazmat, but still interested in the health and well being of firefighters, Benner offers this perspective in closing: “I had the very distinct advantage of hindsight when I was investigating accidents for the NTSB, and once you start to understand why people are doing things, you start to see what’s going wrong. Back then, firefighters were using the same paradigm for HAZMAT incidents as they were for structural firefighting – and it wasn’t working. All I did was show them how to look at the situation a little differently [by using the DECIDE model] and appreciate the differences between a firefighting mindset and a HAZMAT mindset. Hazmat incidents can’t be handled with a cookbook approach, and I’m not a believer of teaching cookbook-type HAZMAT training – you have to use your head.”
The full-source document on the DECIDE process, and many other writings by Ludwig Benner, can be found on the web at http://www.ludwigbenner.org/HMdocs/DECIDE_reprint.pdf
An additional website referencing Benner’s work is http://www.iprr.org/HazMatdocs/GEBMO/GEBMO.html
Rob Schnepp is division chief of special operations (ret.) for Alameda County (CA) Fire Department. His incident response career spans 30 years as a special operations fire chief, incident commander, consultant, and published author. He commanded numerous large-scale emergencies for the Alameda County (CA) Fire Department, protecting 500 square miles and two national laboratories in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. He twice planned and directed Red Command at Urban Shield, the largest Homeland Security exercise in the United States. He served on the curriculum development team and instructed Special Operations Program Management at the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy. He is the author of “Hazardous Materials: Awareness and Operations.” He has developed risk assessment, incident management, and incident command training for Fortune 500 companies, foreign governments, and U.S. national laboratories.