Protective Services Sgt. Yan Racette has his hands full. On any given day at the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa, Canada, he must contend with nitric acid, sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide and chlorine gas are just some of the products used to refine precious metals as well as nitrogen oxide generated on an industrial scale all nearby induction furnaces and molten metal emergency side pours.
More importantly, Sgt. Racette is charged with keeping training the hazmat team and mint employees on how to avoid and handle hazmat emergencies. He’s been a hazmat technician since 2002 and has served as the mint’s coordinator and lead instructor since 2010. And he’s racked up an impressive list of certifications from both Canadian and U.S. agencies.
Sgt. Racette shared his insights on hazmat training with HazSim.
What type of students do you train and what facilities do you have at your disposal?
The adult students that are trained are Protective Services officers as well as production and refinery workers in an industrial establishment. The students go through a rigorous facility tailor-made NFPA 472 technician course including a written exam and a live scenario that is done either onsite or at one of the Ottawa Fire Department stations. These students often come with very little hazardous material knowledge or background apart for GHS. They evolve to NFPA 472 Hazmat Technicians and NFPA 1081 Industrial Firefighters at the incipient level.
How do you mix up the training scenarios so they don’t become predictable or stale?
Hazmat Nation and The Hazmat Guys have been key resources for obtaining new training tips, exercises and scenarios while keeping it fresh. Some scenarios get recycled after a few years as the students go through and experience the natural evolution and their comfort level progresses. Different levels of PPE/CPE are used to increase difficulty levels. Sometimes something as simple as decreasing the ambient lighting and adding smoke immediately changes the approach the responders take. The injection of casualties, whether it’s only one or a mass casualties, to the event dramatically changes the priority levels and response. The addition of training aids and props are also great to add twists to the hazmat responders that are downrange.
The realism and live feed of the HazSim has been a game changer for our training sessions. No more walking around with an empty MX6 case and inventing readings on the spot. Now our hazmat responders can call out reading as they appear in real time as they see them.
What’s the key to best preparing responders to handle real scenarios outside of the controlled training environment?
My boss, coach and mentor has always taught me to “train hard and fight easy.” That has become my personal motto as well as that of the hazmat team. We go to great lengths to make our scenarios as realistic as possible.
Our facility refines precious metals and a lot of chemicals are needed to ensure the absolute purity of the finished product. Nitric acid, sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide and chlorine gas are just some of the products that are used. Nitrogen oxide is also generated on an industrial scale during the processes mixed with induction furnaces and molten metal emergency side pours, and this unconventional mix is our day-to-day.
We are of the belief that there is no better way to train than in our own house with our own toys. Our facility, being a heritage building, has very limited space to execute the tasks in a complex industrial environment. Therefore, when we have the opportunity, we train within our facility using the appropriate level of PPE/CPE required to get used to the limits of our environment. Imagine, two hazmat responders in fully encapsulated in positive-pressure Level A ensembles prepping a mock leaking chlorine cylinder to be put in a chlorine recovery vessel in a little room filled with smoke and their HazSim monitor alarming non-stop. And all this is close to a half dozen induction furnaces containing molten metal in fusion.
What is your biggest obstacle when conducting hazmat training?
The actual scheduling. Being able to get everyone to a monthly skill-set training or the annual recertification while disrupting operations as little as possible takes quite a bit of effort and flexibility. We do what we need to do and with a dedicated team. We sometimes train at night or during weekends.
Also, ensuring that you have several sets of extra eyes to assist during the training, especially with new recruits. I rely heavily on my assistant instructors to ensure that trainees do not commit unsafe or potentially hazardous maneuvers during training — for example, when they don and doff the SCBAs for the first time, same as their chemical-protective garments.
What wicked training problem keeps you up at night?
In the more recent years, how to deliver training as realistically as possible without compromising the health and safety of the students by minimizing the risk of exposure to Covid-19. We mitigate this by training in smaller teams, however this is very demanding and can only be seen as a short-term remediation.
Another student complaint frequently received is the limited visibility due to the fogging of the Level A suit. I do not consider this as a wicked training problem, however, I do use it to my advantage as training aids for the students to practice their fine motor skill.
What would it take to solve it?
If anyone found a 100% solution to the fogging (condensation issue) I want it.
What devices do you rely on most for realistic training?
Without a doubt, we rely on our HazSim monitor the most for realistic training. It is imperative that the hazmat responders be able to read, relay and interpret the readings on their monitors; it’s their lifeline. This will not only dictate the level of PPE/CPE to be worn for the response, but also the level of respiratory protection required (SCBA vs APR/PAPR). The real-time reading also indicates at which point the hazmat responders need to escalate or de-escalate the response, or if the techniques being used are effective.
None of our training would be realistic without the help of “Cocaine Randy.” Cocaine Randy is a Rescue Randy named thus after being blocked at the United States-Canada border for several weeks by our U.S. Border colleagues.
How do you alter training for new responders versus seasoned veterans?
During training scenarios, live exercises or even table top exercises, we always try to pair our newbies with our senior hazmat team members. It is the same whether it’s on the first responder team, the rapid intervention team or even the decontamination team. This is crucial for their personal development where they gain confidence and hands-on knowledge on techniques that they can carry with them and pass on to future generations of hazmat responders. We have a great spirit in the team. That is why newcomers are brought up to speed and integrated immediately. We care for each other.
How do you keep the classroom portion of hazmat training fresh?
Every year I task myself on building a relative class review for the recertification. In the first portion of the day, I introduce our new equipment, any current events and techniques of the hazmat world as well as crucial basics knowledge that needs to be revised. Audio visuals are especially important as well as hands-on techniques. You don’t want your students to suffer death by PowerPoint. The second portion of the day is reserved for the full-scale scenario where the hazmat responders get to wow us with their acquired talent.
Another important feature that we rely on to keep up with knowledge is our monthly skill sets. Every month, the hazmat team is scheduled to meet for 1.5 hours to refresh on a particular hazmat skill. Those skills vary month to month and include chemical and air monitoring, decontamination, plugging and patching containers, capping high-pressure cylinders, different levels of PPE/CPE, casualty rescue, loss control and salvage techniques, fine-motor skill drills as well as a yearly full facility tour highlighting the different processes and hot spots.
What’s the optimum class size and why?
Our hazmat response protocol mandates a minimum of five hazmat members per response. Ideally the class sizes would need to be greater than five students. In a perfect world, the optimum class size is an even number of students and where all our 12 hazmat team positions are filled for the scenario. Those positions are: one incident commander, one scribe-safety, two first responder team, two rapid intervention team, three decontamination team and three support-research team.
The latter has proven quite challenging since Covid-19 affected us all. Due to enhanced hygiene practices and social distancing, class sizes had to be drastically reduced to allow proper sanitization and distancing. I have delivered NFPA 472 hazmat training to a class of three students, as well as providing hazmat recertification via Skype for knowledge evaluation to another group to ensure everyone remains updated and relevant.
What’s been your biggest “ah-ha” teaching moment?
Being a hazmat instructor for many years, I am always amazed by the students’ development and the natural progression of the skills and application they use. When students arrive on a Monday and have no idea that nitrogen displaces the oxygen or that hydrogen is extremely flammable. By the following Friday, they can lead a hazmat team and successfully cap and contain a leaking 150-pound chlorine cylinder in a fully encapsulated positive pressure Level A ensemble in a room full of smoke, or they can deploy a fully established and functioning decontamination corridor in 6 minutes. That is simply an astonishing achievement.
What role does technology play in how you teach hazmat and what do you think the future holds?
In the more recent years, technology has played an instrumental role in not only how we teach hazmat but how we respond to a hazmat situation. From decontamination surfactant, to spill response absorbents, to first aid counter measures for casualties, to fire suppression agent and chemical protective equipment. Instrumentation and visual aids also play a key role in the proper development of a hazmat responder. The realism of training benefits the hazmat responder to stay on their toes and not to become complacent, as this can greatly affect the muscle memory of their actions.
For me, the HazSim Pro has given me the ability to challenge my hazmat students as they are downrange. I am able to break their tunnel vision by asking them a question, forcing them to stop, think, consult with their buddy and respond. I can also control the environment in which they are responding by manipulating the digital reading from a distance, turning an area into an instant hot zone. Live simulation is crucial to a successful responding hazmat team during training. It is impossible to train for every possible scenario in the hazmat world. If it can happen, it will happen.
What important question wasn’t asked?
For me, the most important question is the one you don’t ask. A lot of people are extremely knowledgeable in the hazmat field. But no one can answer the call alone without teamwork and absolute trust.