First Responders in Chemical Hazardous Materials Incidents

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The Golden Hour refers to the hour or minutes after an emergency incident in which actions by first responders may determine the likelihood of survival of the affected individuals. As such, a first responder’s role in and understanding of the incident are the primary factors in ensuring the best outcome in the most difficult situations. In the case of a HAZMAT incident, the decisions of the first few minutes determine the overarching success or failure of a response operation. This is especially true in cases of mass casualties, mass exposure to toxic material, and chemical attacks (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021).

The initial responders, personnel that are first at the scene or first dispatched, can include firefighters, law enforcement, or emergency medical staff. Frequently, these individuals may have only limited training in response and management of HAZMAT situations. Due to this, it is essential that they are able to recognize the scale, responsible system, and management procedures of the event. The process can be narrowed down to six vital tasks, which are recognizing the incident, protecting oneself and others, listing initial response objectives, taking immediate actions, managing upon arrival of specialists, and transitioning command in the later stages of the incident.

It is essential that first responders are able to understand and implement the four levels of response in a HAZMAT event. The first is the awareness level roles, which are unlikely to encounter hazardous materials in their daily life but are usually the first on the scene of an incident (Cresswell, 2021). Their primary tasks include knowledge of hazardous materials, recognizing labels and placards that signify danger, and familiarity with available resources on the topic. Second, operations-level responders are responsible for a defensive strategy that focuses on mitigating the hazards without entry into the hot zones.

Their principal tasks include controlling and minimizing the hazard, and knowledge of defensive tactics such as suppression, damming, absorption, diverting, and vapor dispersion. Additionally, they should be familiar with air monitoring, mass decontamination, evacuation and victim rescue, labeling danger zones, and the protection of evidence. Third, responders on a technical level are highly specialized with an offensive strategy toward the incident. They require a substantial understanding of chemistry, physics, biology, and in some cases, CBRN training.

Their fundamental responsibilities include high-risk assessments of the incident, selection of advanced testing, detection, and monitoring technology, ability to use complex Personal Protective Equipment, and choosing decontamination methods and control equipment. Fourth, specialist-level responders are individuals with advanced scientific knowledge of HAZMAT incidents. Frequently, they take on a more managerial role in observing and directing technical-level responders while troubleshooting potential complications. They may also take a hands-on approach with technician responders in the hot zone.

Role awareness is as important for first responders as the understanding of the dangers that they are likely to face in a HAZMAT incident. Some of the more common toxic materials first responders are likely to encounter include carbon dioxide leaks which may be colorless and cause nausea, asphyxiation, and even skin burns in case of refrigeration (Pike, 2018). Chlorine is often found in industrial and customer products but is highly reactive and volatile. Gasoline is highly flammable and can evaporate easily, which means it is a hazard that it can become airborne. Sulfuric acid is used in many items such as fertilizers, metal processing, fiber production, chemical manufacturing, and lead-based batteries. It is highly corrosive and common, which makes it a likely hazard. These toxins may not be the cause of the HAZMAT incident but have the potential to contribute to an already dangerous situation if mishandled or not identified.

Effective regulations have lowered the number of casualties and the severity of certain incidents in recent decades. One of the reasons includes preparedness and prior training that first responders receive. Responders and specialists have less practice with real incidents to be better at level management, equipment use, and other skills but are able to develop these vital abilities through practice. Risk-based and effective training is critical for both government officials and first responders, which can range from specialized education to minimum-level training dictated by industry standards (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2019). Public information and warnings are also tremendously effective in minimizing and mitigating risks during HAZMAT incidents.

In the case of a real incident, recognizing the magnitude of an event is crucial in the response the incident will receive. A non-emergency condition signifies an incident that is not life-threatening and will not adversely impact the environment, the property, and the health of the local populace (Warren County Emergency Management, 2020). A controlled emergency condition refers to a situation in which hazardous materials may have adverse effects on life, health, property, the environments of the surrounding area but can be controlled by a local authority.

A limited emergency condition is similar to a controlled emergency but may affect regions outside its immediate point of release. As such, municipal areas may be affected, and assistance may be needed from multiple sources. A full emergency condition reflects a hazardous material indecent in which definite negative impact is being made towards life, health, property, and the environment of one or multiple areas. Additional assistance is essential for the solving of the incident.


Cresswell, K. (2021). A guide to the four levels of Hazardous Materials (HazMat) response. HazmatNation. Web.

Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2019). Hazardous Materials Incidents: Guidance for State, Local, Tribal, Territorial, and Private Sector Partners. Web.

Pike, S. (2018). What are the most common HazMat threats for first responders?. Argon. Web.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021). The Golden First Minutes — Initial Response to a Chemical Hazardous Materials Incident. Web.

Warren County Emergency Management. (2020). Hazardous Materials Response Plan. Web.

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BusinessEssay. "First Responders in Chemical Hazardous Materials Incidents." November 29, 2022.