Firefighter hazmat training is fraught with problems, not the least of which is how to conduct meaningful training that keeps hazmat responders safe and makes them more effective without creating an actual hazmat incident.
Career firefighter Phil Ambrose, who now serves as battalion chief, wrestled with that problem — and ultimately did something about it. He created a software-driven platform that delivers realistic hazmat training up and down the incident response and command structure. Here’s our conversation with Ambrose on how and why he developed HazSim.
What inspired your initial idea?
I was not happy with the way we were training. Being a first responder is dangerous; high-risk, low-frequency hazmat incidents are dangerous. And we were using notes and taps on the shoulder to mimic readings? This method was not helping. Dangerous jobs require realism in training. It needs to be hands on, realistic and challenging — not scripted on cue cards. It needs to be adaptable so the training evolutions do not become stale and predictable.
Describe how that idea evolved into what we see today?
I could not stop thinking about this idea. So, I spent late nights working with my nephew who programmed the original concept. I also had a crash course in patents, business and lots of hustle. I took the first iteration to TEEX and some well-respected hazmat teams to test the idea — and everyone wanted one. We got the first version going and have not stopped making improvements encouraged by our users.
What did you learn from your early failures?
Work harder but have a plan. Building a product, a brand, a company, is not easy. Surround yourself with smart people (for me that was easy). I also learned early that I didn’t know anything about running a business. I joined and spent a year in Entrepreneurs’ Organization where I received a crash course in business. Having a firefighter-developed product that solves real firefighter training problems is important, but it takes business savvy to get that solution in firefighters’ hands.
What’s been the most profound story you’ve heard from a customer?
We reach out to all our customers to get feedback on how they are using HazSim and to learn what works and what doesn’t work for them. We’ve collected some of the more interesting customer stories here. There’s not one profound story. But the most profound results for me are the numerous stories I get from hazmat instructors who tell me HazSim got their students excited about hazmat. An excited student will remember what was taught, use it in practice and teach it to others on the department. That’s how we can make a difference in responder safety and civilian outcomes. That’s why I do this.
What problem keeps you up at night?
That firefighters and hazmat teams are ill-prepared for deadly disasters. PowerPoints, war stories and “tick the boxes” training won’t cut it when there’s a real incident that can claim firefighter and civilian lives. We need to do better than the obligatory annual or quarterly B.S. training. I worry that victims will die because firefighters are paralyzed because they weren’t prepared to act and, likewise, I worry that firefighters will die because they are ill-prepared when they do act.
What does the near-term future hold for the company and products?
We’re a growing, nimble, firefighter-owned company. Our near-term drive is to constantly be improving on our platform based on what hazmat users tell us and on what new technology can be incorporated. Some of those improvements will be incremental. And we are always experimenting with ways to make larger, more wholescale changes to our platform and hardware. We’ll continue to focus on how we teach our customers to use our system to get the most out of their hazmat training. Internally, we’ll keep looking for ways to improve the business things like our supply chain, our distributors, our manufacturing process and our brand awareness.
What does the long-term future hold for the company and products?
We started with a hazmat training problem and created the technology to solve it, rather than with new tech looking for different problems it could address. We’ll stay the course with laser focus on finding ways to improve firefighter hazmat training and inventing or using whatever technology best gets that done. Each problem has its own best solution. We’ll continue to innovate and find those solutions.
Any predictions on how hazmat response will change in the coming years?
We are experiencing a wave of technology across the fire service. In a way, hazmat was more prepared since we were already a battery-operated section, if you will. Much of the new tech in our industry is very vendor driven. It remains unproven. I believe the newer generation of firefighters and company officers will embrace lots of the new tech. But, they are not stupid and they grew up with tech — if it doesn’t work, they won’t use it.
Tomorrow’s training will still require that hands-on component. A hazmat leak will still require a human to apply a clamp or turn a dial. Even with drones and robots, a human will need to interpret meter data, make decisions and operate that technology. As the dust settles on new tech, teams will still carry out much of what we do now, but be better at using and deploying tech. My vision is to eliminate injury and death for first responders, which will require consistent, high-quality training. The past has taught us that technology is best when used as a tool, not a crutch. That will probably hold true for future hazmat response. HazSim will continue to adapt and improve to enable the type of learning that saves lives by creating life-saving experiences through training.
What do you see in the hazmat world that gives you the most concern?
That hazmat is too technical and remains specialized. Hazmat is everywhere; fire is hazmat. The rule of thumb approach was a way to say, “hey, we are too close to the problem, let’s move away.” As first responders, we are the ones who signed up to fix the problem. By making hazmat too specialized, we create an environment that says it is someone else’s problem. The only way to address this is consistent and quality training in a hands-on environment. That’s not sitting in a classroom listening to a near-retiree tell war stories. It is getting out and performing life-saving tasks and improving skills. It is about getting the company officers and incident commanders trained to make good decisions on hazmat related calls — that too, is done through consistent, meaningful training.
What do you see in the hazmat world that gives you the greatest sense of optimism?
The younger generation embracing technology and their desire to learn and improve. It falls on all of us who have been in this business to not only ensure they have the skills to succeed, but also the values and work ethic of being a life-long learner. It also falls on us to ensure they have the space to push boundaries and learn. I’m also optimistic that their energy and fresh-eyed approach can influence how old hazmatters like myself learn, think and act. Youth can push and mentor the old as much as the experienced can guide the novice. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and I’m optimistic the hazmat world gets that.