Saturday, September 22, 2012

She's In Danger & So Are You

It looks safe enough, doesn't it?

Maybe you think she's in danger from a stalker or a schoolmate.

No, that's not it at all.

She's in danger because the library she's visiting was built on a landfill.

It emits a lot of methane.  It emits a lot of CO2.  Worse still, it emits a lot of H2S (hydrogen sulfide) and CO (carbon monoxide).

Three out of these four gases are not only invisible, but odorless, too.  Hydrogen sulfide has the odor of rotten eggs, but after being exposed to it for a little while, people get olfactory fatigue and can't tell it's there any more.

Exactly how much of these gases would you think could build up in this building?  How would you like to respond to a fire in this library not knowing flammable methane gas was coming up from the ground beneath it?

There are no gas detectors stationed throughout this library.

No one thought of it.

Or maybe a city official thought it would be an unnecessary expense to add them.

Is your city that cheap?

Worth thinking about.

If you're a HAZMAT responder, it's worth wondering where the landfills are, too.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

He Thinks He's Tougher Than Carbon Monoxide

Over the years I've heard a lot of otherwise smart people tell me that you can build up a tolerance to carbon monoxide and a variety of other toxic gases.  For the purposes of this post, let's stick to carbon monoxide.

You can never, ever build up a tolerance to carbon monoxide.  The idea that you can is sheer stupidity.  But many people buy it.

But carbon monoxide seems to attract stupid ideas.  Years ago, I saw a plant worker sniffing near the compression fittings of a CO trans-fill panel board.  When I asked him what the hell he was doing, he told me, "I thought I smelled a leak."

This man was a college graduate.  He knew he couldn't smell carbon monoxide.  He'd been through every training course we had.  There were a stack of carbon monoxide detectors back in his office.  Why in the world would he think he could?

Worse yet, why would anyone put their nose near a suspected toxic gas leak?

I asked him that question.  Here's what he said:

"Well, you work around it long enough, you build up a tolerance."

"Who the hell told you that?"  I asked.

"It's common sense," he said.  "You breathe in CO when you smoke a cigarette, right?  First time you light one up you can't stand them.  Smoke them long enough and you get used to them.  Give you headaches at first, but after a while the headaches go away.  You get used to it.  Besides, it's not like it's arsine."

I've thought about him now and then when I see firefighters or other HAZMAT workers go into areas without gas monitors.  I wonder if they think carbon monoxide isn't that bad.  Or if they don't need gas detectors because they're used to being around the bad stuff.

Maybe they think they're too tough for carbon monoxide.

They're not.

A poison is a poison.

Movie crap aside, you just don't get used to poison.

You're mind just gets used to dying a bit faster, and sometimes a lot quicker.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The New and Improved Top Temp Gun

Top Temp Gun

A lot of people have written me asking where we've been, and the answer is that we've been re-developing out new Top Temp Gun.  I've field tested this unit so much it feels like a family member.

We still maintain the 100:1 distance to spot ratio. That means at a distance of 100 feet you'll be measuring a circle with a diameter of only one foot!  At 300 feet, you'll be measuring a circle of 3 feet in diameter.

We've expanded the temperature range from -76 degrees Fahrenheit to 2732 degrees Fahrenheit to allow for both endothermic and exothermic reactions.

And the scope.  You'll like it.  We already included a Class three laser targeting mechanism, but now we've added a green laser to make it easier to see what you're targeting.  It turns out that in different lighting conditions, one is easier to see than the other.

So now that we've finished re-designing this unit, we're ready to go back to work.

Next week we'll cover more training issues.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Doctor Gas

HAZMAT responders rely on networks of experts to get their job done.

But there are experts, and there are experts.  Some you can trust and some you can't.

When it comes to the chemistry of hazardous gases, the best I know is Stephen Vaughn, PhD.  He's one of the guys you can trust.  And Dr. Vaughn's knowledge isn't just theoretical.  His company, Custom Gas Solutions, LLC. manufactures, purifies, and blends mixtures of difficult gases every day.  They're known internationally for their combination of both theoretical and hands-on knowledge.

When you are called to respond to a situation that includes toxic, corrosive or highly flammable gas, who can you call when you need answers?  That's the question, isn't it?

I call Dr. Vaughn.

Years ago a friend of mine watched a fire truck approach a burning building.  He was shocked to see the fire truck suddenly turn tail and drive the other way.  Unbelievable.  Later he learned they'd seen a sign that said "Acetylene Production."

What if the sign said phosphine production?  Who could your group call?

There are two major issues responders have to deal with when it comes to difficult gases.   The first group involves health and safety issues, and the second group concerns the chemistry issues relating to more serious developments.  The most important chemistry issues, from my standpoint, are potential chemical reactions and the by-products they can generate.

We're never going to run out of health and safety experts.  But it's hard to find the kind of chemistry experts that can speak intelligently about the potential for dangerous gas reactions with potentially even more dangerous by-products.

That's why after running over a month behind in interviews because we've been working on a new book concerning hazardous materials response, we're going to catch up by posting interviews with Dr. Vaughn once per week over the next three weeks covering the topic of hazardous gas response issues.

Here's Dr. Vaughn's bio so you'll know a bit about him before we get started: 

      Stephen Owens Vaughan was born in Newton, North Carolina, January 29, 1961.  He grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he attended Durham Academy and the University of North Carolina.  He received his PhD from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1987.  Stephen, his wife Kathe, a professional artist, their son Kip (21) and, their daughter Merriwether (16) currently reside in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Favorite pastimes include automobile restoration and purebred dogs.

      Stephen founded Custom Gas Solutions in 2004 to address highly specialized needs in the marketplace for Specialty Gas standards.  Since then, he has gained international attention for stabilization technologies for reactive gas standards and the development of analytical methodologies for validation and certification of those standards.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Can a Video Prepare You for This?

Back in 2004, Kerry Jenkins submitted a thesis at Louisiana State University, 2004 that contains a great deal of interesting information.  His creative thinking is a strong addition to the body of thought regarding responder training.  You can find it at

He cites a great great many interesting quotes and information.  The reason it is worth studying is because he looks at our industry training issues without being bound by our pre-conceived notions.  His objective, explained in his own words is:

"Morey, et al. (2002) found that training of emergency personnel can reduce errors.  In this
study, emergency personnel such as doctors, nurses, and technicians were given formal
teamwork training.  Over one year, members of emergency departments participated in the study
by entering into a training course that focused on teamwork skills.  The results showed “that the
number of observed clinical errors was significantly reduced” within the departments given the
training (Morey et al., 2002, p. 9).  With the need for training so crucial, it is vital that the best
training methods and tools be used to help first responders retain and apply information.  In this 2
study, I experiment with the efficacy of one important tool used to train first responders:  the 
training video."

Much has changed in the emergency responder training world over the years.  Used to be that I thought emergency response training videos were a good training tool.  Now I know it was because I hadn't seen training videos of the quality produced by the Emergency Film Group.  They've changed the way I think about training videos.

Their founder, Gordon Massingham has kindly agreed to an interview.  I'm sending over my questions to him tomorrow morning on how his company started, what ideas they began with and how those changed over the years, and where they see the future for training videos.

Meantime, if you want to see one of the things about his company that impresses me, follow this link and take a look at the stellar personnel that as his Technical Committee.  Gordon sure knows the value of good technical input!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Upcoming Interviews

We want to keep your mental bulb burning about Hazmat Response Training, so we'll keep talking to the people doing the hard work of educating us.

Our next series of interviews on the topic of training will be with the Emergency Film Group, Custom Gas Solutions president Stephen Vaughn, PhD. and finally the folks over at Hazmat IQ.

Although they've been around for many years, the Emergency Film Group only recently just came to my attention.  I've never held much faith in videos as a Hazmat training methodology, but after seeing a sampling of these guys work, I have to say they've changed my mind.  I spoke with the founder and our conversation  really made clear why they're the leaders in the field.  I'll write about that in the next series of posts.

Stephen Vaughn, PhD. is the kind every Emergency Responder should should know.  When it comes to not only theoretical background ( getting his PhD from John Hopkins ought to be enough said on that topic), but hands on experience, he's as good as it gets.  When it comes to the practical aspects of handling toxic and flammable gas, there's none better.  You'll want to read what he has to say.

Then I'll get around to Hazmat IQ, the superstars of the Emergency Responder training field.  They're unique system and high energy "we've been there and done" that training will literally amaze you and change the way you think about the Hazmat Response field for the rest of your life.  Don't miss it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Stress and Training the HazSim Way- Part Five of Five

Phil Ambrose is on to something.

If we give him our support, someday the kind of high tech 3-D video interface modules in this picture might be integrated with his realistic approach to the hardware used in training.  This type of wearable technology could pave the way for augmented reality and allow us to realize the much sought after integration between technology and physiology necessary for more effective training.

Interactive modules of the kind Phil is designing to help prepare responders for hazardous gas confrontations are long overdue in our community and we should all be grateful for Phil's inventiveness and persistence in bringing his methods and equipment to market.  He's taken the lead on hazardous gas response training and I'm glad of it.

But his technology is applicable to more than just hazardous gas detection training.

When I asked Phil about whether his approach could be put to use to train people to use high-powered infrared temp guns as an early warning system, he told me,  "The short answer is yes. Using the housing and likely a beam to aim. The internals could be replaced with our internals and run on the platform. The long answer is yes too, just requires some work.  The initial plan of Hazsim would be to be adaptable to many technologies."  That's the kind of innovative thinking we need in the emergency response community.

I also asked Phil  what's  new and important at HazSim.  Here's what he said:

"HazSim is listed on the responder knowledge base and has AEL numbers for grant purchase.

Feedback has been excellent and common reactions have cited not only the realism but the fact that the instructor has so many options during a drill.  HazSim is proud to be providing our system to increasing numbers of public agencies in both police and fire hazmat.  We are in the process of finishing an agreement with one of the top HazMat training facilities in the world whose instructors were impressed by the HazSim system. 

HazSim is looking for a first responder HazMat agency or HazMat training group in the Chicago area interested in an evaluation studying the increase in learning through hands on interactive training.  The preferred group should have at least 90 students going through a HazMat course which involves drill scenario and meter use.  The training group would be part of a paper intended for publication and have the opportunity to use the HazSim Pro Trainer system.  For details about this study, contact or 323-9HazSim."

To lease or purchase these units, you can go to or or or call 323-9HazSim for lease or purchase information.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Stress and Training the HazSim Way- Part Four of Five

Controlled stress exposure while training is an important point in training, as we discussed in the last post.  It helps us understand that the situations and materials we are being trained to deal with can be dangerous to the life and health of our communities and ourselves.

Phil Ambrose's unique approach to handling the issue of hazardous gas detector training is shown in the following short video.  It's an introduction to his unique approach of providing hardware and software that can emulate virtually any portable gas detector on the market.  You'll see that the trainer can determine what readings the student sees on their simulated monitor and interact with the student during the training.  This interaction on an individual monitor puts the student on the spot to deal with the issue in front of them.  They learn the point that so many other approaches miss- that you have to use the readings on the monitors to chart your next course of action.

And you'll see why Phil says "HazSim, LLC and their product line of Hazardous Materials Simulation Software and Handheld meters challenges the 'old way' of hazmat training. High risk occupations require simulated hands on training."

We see videos about how to use our hazardous gas detectors.  Teachers explain what the readings might or might not mean.  But in most training, the teacher lacks a way to link that knowledge permanently to the idea that we must use those readings as a basis for our next actions.

You'll get the idea why during the last 30 seconds of Phil's video.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Lessons from the Grandmaster- Part Three of Five

The Grandmaster Makes a Painful Point

My teacher, Grandmaster Robert Law, has unique views as they relate to training.  All of his methods have applications to teaching emergency responders.

One of his fundamental concepts is the counter-intuitive idea that we learn best when we are under moderate stress.  The opposite approach is where a student experiences no stress during their training.

Here is a famous example of an Ontario policeman and martial artist who learned by standard training methods:

The policeman pulled over a reckless driver on the 401 highway that stretches from Windsor to Toronto and beyond.  As he got close to the car, the driver got out and pointed a gun at him.  The policeman, a highly trained martial artist, reacted with blinding speed, took the gun away from the driver and then, without a thought, returned it to him.

What happened next?

When he realized his mistake, he tried to take the gun away again and this time the driver shot him.


Because in standard training, the student practices the pistol takeaway and then returns it to the other student so that they can practice the move again.  And they do it again and again and again.

So the policeman was just repeating his training when he gave the gun back to the driver.

There was no stress in his training.  No sense that the person with the gun was really an enemy and that he could really get hurt if he didn't totally disable the opponent.

It's very much the same with hazardous gas detector training.  We see a movie.  We learn how to operate the device.  No stress during the training.  No sense that the situation is real.  No sense that there are consequences.

The results can be catastrophic.

In our next post, we'll get a look at how Phil Ambrose's new training system deals with this problem.  You'll see a video of how the system operates.

You'll find it highly instructive.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Phil Ambrose- a Pioneer in Interactive Hazmat Response Training- Part Two of Five

Phil Ambrose

"As a career firefighter it is my responsibility to be physically and mentally fit and to be proficient in all job-related skills.    My feeling is that when you start with a high-risk occupation  such as firefighting, mining, confined space worker, refinery technician, etc. and add IDLH environments to that job, you better be good at what you do both personally and as a team.  My goal was to design a software system coupled with a training methodology that provides not only realistic training but an effective way to ensure HazMat technicians from ALL backgrounds in EVERY industry stay proficient in skills which will ultimately save lives.  I am fortunate to have family, friends, and a great team to have made this goal a reality.

My experience as a HazMat student was that most training, while informative, lacked the crucial element of realism that a student would gain with hands-on training.  Further, training on the actual drill grounds lacked the potential for an instructor to design unexpected or unforeseen hazards, conditions that a student must be prepared for in a real HazMat situation.  Ultimately the person holding a detection meter is responsible for themselves and their team and should completely understand the readings. Having a student hold a frontline meter up to a source and causing an alarm doesn't challenge the student or cause them to acquire critical decision making skills.  The training environment should come as close as possible to approximating a realistic hazard in which the individual will be relying on these skills to make critical decisions.   

In addition, I recognized that post 9/11, many new hazmat students were not from occupations that typically experience the danger and resulting 'pucker factor' of facing IDLH environments, and wanted to create a system that was realistic, innovative, and challenging while improving retention of difficult to understand principles.   I have seen too many hazmat trainings where conditions are faked using frontline meters with no values, or prompted by the instructor by voice or by postings on a wall.  In a real life situation, a student will not have the benefit of an instructor giving them feedback, and the ability to accurately comprehend real time information is imperative.

In initial training to new HazMat workers, I wanted the instructor to be able to let the students experience the concepts while being engaged 'hands on,' rather than just be PowerPointed on the subject.  For example, while discussing Oxygen displacement or ppm vs. LEL the students can now hold a meter and actually see what the instructor is explaining, and even answer interactive questions on the screen of the HazSim device.  The instructor would not be limited to preset training scenarios, and could make detection and identification part of the training process.  The method is repeatable and the instructor can review the concepts and answers while easily identifying students who may need more help on the principles.

Most importantly, by creating realism on the drill ground an instructor can challenge a student with what most of us call the 'pucker factor' and experts such as Dr. Michael Burke at Tulane University call the 'Dread Factor'.  As stated by Dr. Burke "dread refers to a realization of the dangers of the work and associated negative emotions resulting from possible hazardous exposures.  This realization of the possibility of injury or illness or negative emotions that accompany the realization play a primary role in motivating individuals to learn about how to avoid exposure to such hazards".  

With HazSim the student experiences the given hazard in real time.  The instructor is now free to evaluate and let the scenario play out and is no longer a verbal prompter.  All positions in the HazMat ICS are then challenged.  Although no real hazardous materials are present, the student experiences 'dread' as well as some healthy peer pressure to correctly interpret the data given on the HazSim meter."

Monday, January 30, 2012

Hazardous Materials Event Simulation Training Part One of Five

Over the next several weeks, we're going to cover various hazardous materials training system for emergency responders as a follow-up to my last post .  My personal belief is that the best training systems are designed by those with field experience, and Phil Ambrose is one of those people.  He has the experience, the commitment to our field, and the creative insight to bring forth innovative training methodologies.  His company is HazSim, LLC., and before we go into his first rate training system, here's a little about him.  He's our kind of inventor.

"Mr. Ambrose was inspired to invent the HazSim through his passion for effective training and by identifying a critical gap in HazMat training that needed to be filled. Phil is a Firefighter/Hazardous Materials Specialist for a metropolitan fire department in Southern California. Prior to joining the fire service, Phil had eight years combined hazardous materials experience with the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and biotech leader, Amgen. As the Hazardous Waste Manager/Hazardous Materials Specialist for UCLA, Phil served as training officer for the UCLA Hazardous Materials Response Team (HMRT), was UCLA 's representative for a system-wide hazardous waste training committee, and managed the removal of chemical, radioactive and biological waste from the campus and the UCLA Medical Center.

Phil received the Exceptional Public Service Award from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) for serving as a training liaison to their Hazardous Materials Response Team, and is a past Secretary of the LA-based Consortium of Technical Responders (CTR). Phil has held positions in several areas of hazardous materials including waste management, radiation safety, training, and regulatory management within university, hospital, industry, and municipal jurisdictions. Phil has trained members of fire, law enforcement, and industry and is a certified outreach instructor. Phil holds a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering from Loyola Marymount University, is a certified Paramedic, and holds several Hazardous Materials certifications. Phil's day routinely starts at 4am and includes training for Ultra Marathons and spending time in the Pacific Ocean on his Paddleboard preparing for race season." 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Train, Train, Train

I was talking to a salesman a while back who just got drafted to participate in Emergecy Response training. Good guy. Smart. Never been in a HAZMAT suit before and wanted to know if he'd need to wear a tie with it. Thought SCBA was a government agencies. Claustrophobic so he couldn't go into a confined space without having a panic attack.

So I kind of wrote him off.

Funny thing is, after the last several months, I've seen a difference in him. He's sold emergency response equipment for years, but he never really understood it. Now that he has to wear it and use it during his training, he's actually starting to know what it's for.

He comes and asks me questions, real questions for a change.

Every now and then it hits me how greatful I should be for all the training I've received. It's both saved and changed my life. Sometimes I forget that I didn't used to know anything about toxic gas. Now I occasionally take that knowledge for granted.

That's a mistake.

We're never to old to train. Never.

What do you think?