HazSim Customer Spotlight: Boulder County Hazmat Instructor Neil Sheets

We were so impressed with Colorado’s Boulder County Hazmat Team when HazmatNation featured them in Hazmatters this past summer, that we wanted a deeper dive into how they train. Instructor Neil Sheets obliged by pulling back the curtain for us to have a peek at how this young hazmat team tackles the demands of training its personnel.

Sheets earned his hazmat technician certification in 2012 where he was part of a multi-county hazmat authority. In 2019 he joined the Boulder County Hazmat Team, and last year got involved with its training. At the start of this year he was named to the team’s training committee. As part of that new responsibility he develops content for training, as well as leads and assists in delivering monthly training.

We asked Sheets about how the team stays sharp.

What type of students do you train and what facilities are at your disposal?

I teach current hazmat technicians that are part of our team. We also put on our own 80-hour hazmat technician course annually to add additional techs to our team. With the county-based team, we have access to multiple training centers and classrooms throughout the Authority’s jurisdiction to conduct trainings. We try to keep a balance of hands-on, large-scale exercises, as well as classroom-based didactic learning to keep the team up to speed on all fronts.

How do you mix up the training scenarios so they don’t become predictable or stale?

We have a lot of tools at our disposal to keep training fresh. Multiple chemical hazards throughout our Authority jurisdiction that provide a wide variety of options to develop scenarios around, as well as working with our local CST team to bring us an outside perspective. 

What’s the key to best preparing responders to handle real scenarios outside of the controlled training environment?

I believe the key to preparing our responders for incidents is providing real-world scenarios on incidents we could run based on the hazards in our jurisdiction. Also, providing critical-thinking points during the scenarios that keep our personnel thinking and looking at all the factors of the incident. 

What is your biggest obstacle when conducting hazmat training?

The biggest obstacle we’ve had over the past two years has been COVID and the restrictions we faced within the county and from each agency involved in the Authority. We adapted through increased didactic learning through the hardest waves, and are getting back to normal attendance now. 

What wicked training problem keeps you up at night?

The training problem that bothers me most is ensuring that the training I help provide gives the wide spectrum of experience levels our team has with enough new knowledge to keep all our skills up and expanding knowledge for all personnel. 

What would it take to solve it?

I think that we, as the training committee, have to keep up to speed on hazmat technologies and knowledge to present to our personnel to keep everyone on the cutting edge. 

What devices do you rely on most for realistic training?

We are fortunate to have a complete set-up of what we would bring to real incidents as training equipment, making it a “train as we play” environment. This includes our tablets for incident leaders. The Authority also just purchased a HazSim system. It has already proved itself to be an increase in how real-life we can provide training, giving real-time air monitoring for personnel down range, which helps increase situational awareness of our techs when they are operating.

How do you alter training for new responders versus seasoned veterans?

We allow our newer techs to train in all positions during scenarios, while keeping them paired up with one of our seasoned veterans. This allows our newer members to learn new positions and grow within our team, and our veterans to share lessons learned and best practices, while still being able to hone their skills. This seems to help keep the various skill levels engaged in training and keep our team progressing forward. 

How do you keep the classroom portion of hazmat training fresh?

Keeping fresh content in the classroom can be difficult. We are fortunate to have personnel from many different backgrounds on the team that can step up and provide information to the team. We also have a wide variety of topics to discuss in the classroom to keep us up to date with technology and keep our developed knowledge and skills up-to-date.

What’s the optimum class size?

For our full-scale scenarios, 25 to 30 personnel seems to be the optimal size. This way, we can get all the personnel in attendance involved in the drill, so everyone continues to improve. It also keeps us in the “practice as we play” mentality.

As a hazmat instructor, what’s been your biggest “ah-ha” teaching moment?

I feel the first time I taught for the Authority and truly appreciated the wide spectrum of knowledge and experience our team allowed me to better curtail my delivery so that everyone could get something out of it.

What role does technology play in how you teach hazmat and what do you think the future holds for it?I feel technology has a huge role in how we deliver training. During COVID restrictions, we turned to Zoom to help deliver training to help keep our team sharp and up to date. With the recent addition of the HazSim system to our training, they will only improve. As the trainers become more versed in the system, the easier it will be to provide all the data down range that our techs would be seeing on a given incident, making the training even more life-like.