Hazmat: Why we train in the life-saving zone

Our profession is complex and dangerous. Oddly, some often need to remind themselves of this. 

Many of us are not only hazmat professionals but also EMTs, paramedics, firefighters, company commanders, law enforcement officers, EH&S specialists, lab safety specialists, risk managers, confined-space technicians, USAR technicians, WMD specialists, apparatus operators, grief counselors, supervisors, parents, spouses … and the list goes on. And we are expected to be proficient in most of these duties at the same time.

We can learn new theory, concepts, meter operations and chemistry in the classroom. But it is the manipulative skills that ultimately help us go home at shift change.

It is the hands-on, muscle memory skills that will save your life at 2 a.m. Whether it be applying an A kit or following a hose line in the right direction to get out of a bad spot – only hands-on will teach you the muscle memory skills.

To be effective in the field, a hazmat student needs to be challenged outside their comfort zone. We always have used words such as “comfort zone” and “pucker factor.” The term that sums it up: “the life-saving zone.” This zone is where all of the senses are challenged with the goal of making the correct decision and taking the correct action at 2 a.m.

When it comes to meter training or any hazmat drill, it is important to put the operator in the life-saving zone. Whether new skill or refresher, the students need to engage both decision making mental acuity in conjunction with realistic equipment. Whether it be the application of that A kit or defining the initial hot zone, being as realistic as possible is what will ultimately save lives on game day.

As a former K9 handler, I know how critical it is for the dog to learn to work on their own. Yet when I entered the hazmat world in the early ‘90s, I found that we were setting up elaborate scenarios for our students then whispering answers into their ears. I watched drill instructors stand nearby and let the entry/survey team know if they were “hot” or “cold” while unknowingly taking away their ability to make decisions that would determine their safety. 

K9 experts let dogs work independently, yet hazmat instructors tether themselves to the humans and ruin their chance of life-saving experience. A life-saving experience is one that develops the muscle memory so the correct reaction is triggered at 2 a.m., when things can go bad.

A life saving experience is one which develops the muscle memory so the correct reaction is triggered at 2 a.m., when things can go bad.

I developed the HazSim so an instructor can create a safe but “out of the comfort zone” environment without short-circuiting the learning process. The HazSim gives real readings and forces students to make decisions based on those readings. Students will develop life-saving skills that are lost when an instructor feeds them the critical information they needed to experience firsthand, in real time.  

The technician going down range in the hot zone is facing serious potential danger. It is important they train in skills, like the ability to accurately interpret meter data, that will ultimately save their life or the life of another.

Instructor operating the HazSim is at a safe distance
Instructor operating the HazSim is at a safe distance so the students can work independently while receiving realistic meter readings.
Students continue to monitor while working out the problem
Students continue to monitor while working out the problem.  The instructor can drive the scenario based on meter readings.
Students receive real-time readings which drive the scenario realistically
Students receive real-time readings which drive the scenario realistically.

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