HazSim Customer Spotlight: Hazmat Team Leader Capt. Rob Hourigan

Just east of Vancouver, British Columbia sits Burnaby, a city of more than 260,000 residents spread across 90 square kilometers (34.7 square miles). The city is protected by more than 300 firefighters housed in seven stations, with an eight in the works. One of those stations, Station 2, is home to Burnaby Fire’s hazmat team.

The hazmat team must contend with a pipeline terminal, a small refinery, a hydrocarbon storage facilities, a major national highway, three rail lines, two universities and a hydrogen fuel cell manufacturing plant.

Leading the hazmat team is Capt. Rob Hourigan, who has been a firefighter since 1998 and been involved with hazmat since 2000. He’s been running the department’s hazmat program for the past five years. And that means he’s been arranging adequate staffing, preparing budgets, organizing training, researching new equipment, working with other agencies, and just recently, preparing a design for a new hazmat truck. He also has taught spill response, transportation of dangerous goods regulations and WHMIS to industry and transport agencies for a private company. Did we mention he also runs on a busy engine company?

We asked Capt. Houragin to share his tips and insights on how to better prepare hazmat responders.

What type of students do you train?

We train our own firefighters who usually have hazmat operations level prior to getting hired. We teach a refresher course in operations prior to them taking the technician level course through an outside agency. We have facilities at our home station as well as at our training station where we can accommodate scenarios. Recently I reached out to our local university to see if they would let us use their chemistry lab for training. They were enthusiastic about us using their facilities (under their direct supervision, of course). So far they have hosted us for an acid/base neutralization demonstration using some new neutralizing agents we have acquired.

How do you keep the training scenarios from becoming stale?

I encourage team members to come up with scenarios of their own with a chemical of their choice. To create the scenario, they need to research the chemical. They need to learn not just the properties, but exposure levels and how they will behave in the chosen environment. They have to provide data on anticipated (approximate) meter readings in proximity to the source. For example, there may be no readings at 50 feet away, TLV-TWA at 20 feet away and IDLH at 10 feet away. This way the facilitator can adjust the readings on our HazSim.

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

The best preparation for real life is … real life. The importance of pre-incident planning can’t be overstated. When crews can get on site and see the chemicals, the environment they are in and the potential problems that could be faced when dealing with a release, they can translate that information into scenarios for the situation.

What is your biggest obstacle when conducting hazmat training?

We are not a large department, and finding adequate training time among our other responsibilities can be difficult.

What wicked training problem keeps you up at night?

Maintaining interest in the program, and how to keep the members focused on the required skills and knowledge.

What would it take to solve it?

When people come into the hazmat program I try to share my enthusiasm and vision for the team. I point out that operations level is just the beginning and to get the most out of this discipline they need to consider the technician level. I tell them that the technician level is the gateway to more interesting and more advanced training, where they can help develop the program through teaching and sharing ideas.

What devices do you rely on most for realistic training?

I like any type of device or prop that will challenge the students and give them a real-world experience. Those include leak props, cylinders pressurized with air and/or smoke, live chemical agents in a chemistry lab and realistic air monitoring/detection with the HazSim system.

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

I like to challenge the seasoned veterans to remember the things they learned a long time ago. It could be how one chemical reacts with another, or putting them in charge of a scenario to refresh their thinking process. For new team members, I guide them with prompts or ideas about what it is I’m trying to get across. No one likes to be made to feel as if they don’t know anything, so guiding them to finding the answer increases confidence.

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

There are a couple of things I’ve used over the years that have been successful. One is Hazmat Jeopardy. Just like the game show, we have subjects relevant to the training. The class is split into teams and we make it interesting by saying the losing team buys coffee for the winning team (or some other prize). The other thing I like to use is videos relevant to the subject matter to break up the agony of PowerPoints. I have found that the more explosions you show, the better the class pays attention.

What is the optimum class size and why?

I feel the optimum class size is 10 to 15. With that number, you can run scenarios more realistically with people in every position. For the classroom, it creates an opportunity for larger discussions and sharing of ideas.

What’s been your biggest “ah-ha” teaching moment, the one that changed how you teach?

My biggest “ah-ha” moment came when I was a student. Having someone read endless PowerPoints to me didn’t really teach me anything. I learned that to make the subject matter interesting, I had better know what I was teaching and be able to expand on every concept I was trying to get across. I created some PowerPoints with only a couple of pieces of information, then I have a discussion with the class (briefly) about the subject. It challenged me to learn more about the material so I could be more effective at teaching it.

What role does technology play in how you teach hazmat and what does the future holds for it?

I see technology expanding our options in how we teach hazmat. Currently we can do white board scenarios and talk it through. There are now computer simulation programs, animations and virtual reality where we can create any situation we want. We are mostly visual learners in the fire department, so I see this as one future option for us. However, there is still no substitute for hands-on training. So, the advancement of realistic props for scenarios is important.

What do you want your students to walk away from your class with?

The ability to think for themselves, to predict outcomes based on what you know (how to use the data you’ve obtained), to successfully plan an incident and to implement that plan and analyze it logically. And to do all this with the highest level of confidence.