The hazardous materials technician profession evolves constantly and HAZMAT techs must stay abreast of the latest techniques and tools to respond safely. The threat of intentional manmade incidents requires persistent vigilance, but accidental HAZMAT incidents occur throughout the United States almost daily, some are life-threatening and many harm the environment.

An ammonia leak at a meat-packing plant near Fayetteville, N.C., hospitalized more than a dozen people in mid-June. In December, a train spilled 400,000 gallons of crude after colliding with another train in Casselton, N.D., causing the 1,400 residents to be displaced during the evacuation. These are just two recent incidents of many. Hazardous materials are manufactured, used or stored at an estimated 4.5 million facilities in the United States, according to Ready.gov.

The Hazardous Materials Technician for CBRNE Incidents (HT) course at the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP), located in Anniston, Ala., allows emergency response personnel to share a dynamic training experience. The course, first offered in April 1999, conveys complex concepts using hands-on learning models offering realistic scenario-based exercises.

“We go through a pretty intense HAZMAT technician course for the state,” said Patrick Burroughs, a fire fighter from Delray Beach, Fla. “It’s about a two-month course, but the CDP training was so hands-on it compared to two months. We worked with real materials and used up-to-date equipment—it was invaluable.”

The HT course expanded in late 2012 from three days to five days. The subsequent curriculum improvements make the course even more beneficial to HAZMAT techs. In the expanded course, students have more opportunities to operate equipment and exercise their ability to respond to an all-hazards event. Ina addition to more advanced response tools, the course now includes advanced training venues that expanded the CDP’s ability to offer students an even more realistic training experience.

“The CDP collaborates with agencies nationwide and around the world,” said Chuck Medley, assistant director for Training Delivery. “We work hard to understand the latest threats impacting homeland security ensuring the response community is prepared. The HT course is developed for emergency response and designed around the framework of several disciplines.”

The course is designed for personnel working in emergency management, emergency medical services, fire service, governmental administrative, hazardous materials, healthcare, law enforcement, public health, public safety communications and public works. Over the past 15 years nearly 18,000 emergency responders have completed the HT course; of those more than 11,500 are fire service, over 2,500 law enforcement and more than 3,500 make up other disciplines.

HT challenges the hazardous materials technician with an extensive hands-on training experience. The course provides students an overview of both international and domestic threats, with a spotlight on identification and decontamination of biological, chemical, radiological and explosive hazards. The 40-hour course includes training at the Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological training facility (COBRA). The COBRA is the only civilian facility in the nation conducting training exercises using nerve agents GB and VX and also includes biological materials Anthrax and Ricin.

“When you first step through the doors at COBRA it’s an intense feeling. It all becomes very real,” said Burroughs. “When you get that positive hit for nerve agents or you move to the biological materials, where we got a positive hit for Anthrax, it really brings it all home. It’s a little intense but it’s amazing.”

The training venues used include a large indoor street scene with live radioactive sources and a subway train system. Dressed in protective equipment, the students move through smoke-filled, dark passageways searching for survivors while carefully preserving crime scene evidence. A mock post office, distinctive lighting and sound effects help to simulate a more realistic incident to enhance the learning environment

“As a small department we don’t have the capability for this type of venue that’s almost real life—from streets, offices, to shopping centers—it’s very realistic and helps drive home what we learned,” said Larry Robison, fire fighter from Tremont City, Utah. “To be able to train and get the hands-on experience is hard to come by, especially with the live-agent training. This type of training is very important and very critical to build confidence and the capability needed to respond to emergencies.”

“We’re trying to take a more proactive role in assessing certain packages that we receive or items left unattended around the facility,” said Jason Brasgalla, a United States Marshal who works at a federal facility in Manhattan, N.Y. “This course specifically opened the doors to handle CBRNE incidents. [The CDP] gives you the confidence in your equipment and tools. And if that day ever comes where you have to handle a CBRNE incident, like we’re training for and preparing ourselves for, we will be successful.”

Ensuring HAZMAT technicians receive specialized and current training is a function of emergency management. HAZMAT incidents do not always result in a disaster, but knowledgeable and trained HAZMAT emergency personnel are a critical component of a safe response and mitigation.

“The risk from hazardous materials incidents on the American home front is real,” said Medley. “We can’t forecast accidents or intentional incidents so our response personnel must have the ability to safely respond and save lives. The HT course is versatile and offers skills that a variety of responders and their communities will benefit from.”

Training at the Center for Domestic Preparedness is fully funded. To learn more about the CDP and this course, visit http://cdp.dhs.gov or call 866-213-9553.