Hazmat/WMD emergency response: NFPA 472 as a tool for compliance

By Steve Patrick and Ed Allen
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

The growing threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as well as hazardous materials (hazmat) both as weapons and in criminal activities, has significantly altered the traditional philosophies of hazmat emergency response for the law enforcement community. In addition, the development of various tactical and operational procedures to meet the anticipated demands created by these response scenarios has blurred the classical distinction between offensive and defensive response operations that have constituted the cornerstones of national hazmat operations standards since the 1980s.

First of all, what is the difference between a hazmat and WMD incident? From a health and safety perspective, little disparity exists. Hazardous materials can be any matter (solid, liquid, gas, or energy) that, when released, can harm people, property, or the environment. Weapons of mass destruction, as defined by Title 18 of the U.S. Code, describe the same materials and effects but in measurable quantities. The difference lies in the events leading to the release: whether it was an accident or done with criminal intent. So, while the events that precede this type of incident may vary, the actions that responders take may very well be the same.

Since September 11, 2001, law enforcement administrators and managers across the country have endeavored to find appropriate guidance and the standards to build their response capabilities for scenarios involving hazmat and WMD agents. To provide these leaders with information to assist them in assessing their current ability to respond to incidents that may involve hazmat or WMD, the authors present an overview of the recently revised National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) Technical Standard 472: Professional Competencies of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents.1


NFPA is a nonregulatory, voluntary, consensus-standards development organization accredited through the American National Standards Institute. As implied by its name, NFPA's origins come from the fire service and private industry. Historically, however, it has a much broader interest in life-safety issues for all emergency responders and related disciplines. NFPA standards are developed through over 200 technical committees, each comprised of representatives from manufacturing, research and testing, regulatory enforcement, users, and special experts. For example, the NFPA 472 Technical Committee has 33 members, including representatives from the FBI Hazardous Materials Response Unit, the National Tactical Officers Association, the National Bomb Squad Commanders, and the U.S. Capitol Police.

Although most law enforcement personnel may view NFPA 472 as a "fire service only" standard, its scope specifies minimum competencies for those who will respond to hazmat/WMD incidents, regardless of their agency or response discipline. Since its inception in 1986, NFPA 472 has gone through five revisions, with the last update in 2007.

As part of the recent revision cycle, the 472 Committee focused on two main areas: 1) the blurred distinction between traditional hazmat response and its relationship to the growing hazmat/WMD terrorism response issues and 2) the perception that the current standard does not address the needs of the emergency response community as a whole and is merely a "fire service" document. As a result, a working group formed to review the previous standard (completed in 2002) and to evaluate opportunities for NFPA 472 to better meet the needs and concerns of all response disciplines. During the recent revision, the working group looked for consensus on major issues. All involved agreed that definitions should be universal and levels of responders should be clearly denned but still allow for mission-specific flexibility. Ultimately, the working group wanted the standard to focus on responders being trained to perform their expected tasks, regardless of their discipline.

Historically, any discussion on hazmat emergency responder training requirements always has focused upon which responder level someone falls into (e.g., awareness, operations, or technician), rather than addressing the follow-up U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) 1910.120 (q)(6) requirement that "...training shall be based on the duties and function to be performed by each responder of an emergency response organization." The net result is that responders often have received training in areas that clearly do not fall within their concept of operations or response capabilities. A major goal of the NFPA 472 revision process was to facilitate the matching of required skills and competencies with expected duties and tasks. The following summarizes the NFPA 472 proposed changes that potentially can impact law enforcement response operations:

* Emergency response operations to a terrorism or criminal scenario using hazardous materials are based upon the basic concepts of traditional hazmat response. Therefore, personnel cannot safely and effectively respond to a terrorism or criminal scenario involving hazmat/WMD unless they first understand this conventional approach.

* The scope of the standard applies to all emergency employees, regardless of discipline, who may respond to the emergency phase of a hazmat/WMD incident. This has remained consistent since the standard was first published in 1988.

* Emergency responders, regardless of their discipline and organizational affiliation, should be trained to perform their expected tasks.

* Personnel not directly involved in providing onscene emergency response services (e.g., hospital first receivers) are not covered under the scope of this standard but in NFPA Standard 473: Competence of EMS Responders Responding to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents.

Terms defined

A variety of terms have been used in recent years to describe terrorism agents and the criminal use of hazardous materials. The 472 Committee chose to define hazardous materials as "matter (solid, liquid, or gas) that when released is capable of creating harm to people, the environment, and property. This includes weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as defined in 18 U.S. Code section 2332A, as well as other criminal use of hazardous materials, such as drug labs, environmental crimes, or industrial sabotage."

Awareness-Level Personnel

"Persons who, in the course of their normal duties, could be the first on the scene of an emergency involving a hazmat/ WMD and who are expected to recognize the presence of hazmat/WMD, protect themselves, call for trained personnel, and secure the area" constitutes the 472 Committee's definition of awareness-level personnel. One significant change involved dropping the term responder from this level because these individuals typically are not emergency responders. Examples of awareness-level personnel include plant security, public works, and facility maintenance personnel, as well as those employees who require OSHA Hazard Communications training.

Historically, many have viewed law enforcement officers as awareness-level responders who would recognize a hazardous materials release from a safe distance and then activate the local emergency response plan. Today, however, with the threat of terrorism and the growing trend of illicit drug labs, officers must do far more than observe from a safe distance. In addition, many law enforcement agencies are providing their officers with both skin and respiratory protection due to potential WMD threats. As a result, many sworn personnel now are expected to perform tasks that go beyond the traditional awareness-level responder.

Operations-Level Responder

The most substantial changes that will influence the law enforcement community pertain to the operations-level responder. If individuals are tasked to respond to the scene of a hazmat/WMD incident during the emergency phase, they now are viewed as operations level personnel. This category includes members of fire rescue, law enforcement, emergency medical services, private industry, and other allied professions.

To better address the issue of matching requisite skills and competencies with expected duties at the operations level, the 472 Committee proposed breaking the operations-level competencies into two categories: core and mission specific. Core competencies would be required of all emergency responders tasked to respond to a hazmat/WMD incident. However, these do not include any product control, personal protective clothing, or equipment competencies and allow for performing only emergency decontamination. While some additional requirements pertaining to initial incident analysis clearly exist, these new proposed core competencies are not significantly greater than the historical awareness ones.

In contrast, the optional mission-specific competencies would enable the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to match the expected tasks and duties of its personnel with the required competencies. Because these competencies are not mandated, the AHJ should view them as optional based upon an assessment of local risks. The 472 Committee proposed missionspecific competencies for wearing personal protective equipment, as provided by the AHJ; for performing technical and mass decontaminations, product control, air monitoring and sampling, victim rescue and recovery operations, and evidence preservation and sampling; and for responding to illicit laboratory incidents.

This shift to operationslevel core and mission-specific competencies more accurately describes the tasks currently performed by law enforcement personnel in light of current threats. Most patrol officers would receive training in the core competencies, whereas specialized operations, including SWAT, explosive ordnance disposal, mobile field force, and forensic units with a higher probability of hazmat/WMD exposure, would be trained in those mission-specific competencies based upon their concept of operations and expected duties.

To ensure the safety of personnel performing missionspecific competencies, the 472 Committee also proposed that the optional mission-specific competencies be performed under the guidance of a hazardous materials technician, allied professional (e.g., certified industrial hygienist or subject matter expert as determined by the AHJ), or standard operating procedure.

Hazardous Materials Technician

While the 472 Committee made no significant changes to hazardous materials technician (HMT) competencies, it modified the definition of a hazardous materials response team to specifically point out that such an entity perform HMT-level skills and be staffed with personnel trained to the HMT level. Given that hazmat entry units are a typed resource under the National Incident Management System, the 472 Committee believed that this would ensure consistency in operational capabilities.


Currently, many standardsdevelopment organizations are working on issues relative to the emergency response to incidents involving hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction. The National Institute of Justice has revitalized its Law Enforcement Personal Protective Equipment Technical Working Group and currently is collaborating with the National Fire Protection Association to improve protective clothing and equipment standards that directly impact law enforcement emergency responders. National standardized competencies ensure that officers receive training in the most current, widely accepted best practices in the hazmat/WMD arena. They also help ensure that when operations-level law enforcement officers and hazardous material technicians are on scene, they can speak the same language, conduct concurrent hazard and risk assessments, prioritize tactical goals, and support each other in carrying them out. In addition, uniformity between special operations disciplines that deploy with units outside their region proves critical in supporting the National Response Plan.

The revisions to NFPA 472 are a step in the right direction. It demonstrates that all involved disciplines can work together to help improve responder safety for everyone. The law enforcement community has many challenges ahead, including recognizing that it has taken a quantum leap in its role during hazmat/WMD incidents. To have an effective hazmat/WMD response capability, agencies must demonstrate that they are leveraging the knowledge and experience of other responders who have done this before. Most important, the law enforcement profession must actively participate in the standards-development process in the future. Such actions can enhance the safety of all responders and ensure the protection of all Americans.

About the authors

Lieutenant Allen is the emergency management coordinator and SWAT tactical operations coordinator for the Seminole County, Florida, Sheriff's Office.

Mr. Patrick is the program coordinator for hazardous materials operations within the FBI's Hazardous Materials Response Unit of the Laboratory Division.



1 Additional information on the NFPA 472 revision process can be found at the NFPA Web site, www.nfpa.org.

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Copyright 2008 United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation

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