Interview with LT.  Alvaro Javier Toñanez, Miami Dade Fire Rescue Department


Thank you for taking the time to do this interview despite your hectic schedule. Firstly, could you please introduce yourself and the Miami Dade Fire Rescue to our readers?  

My name is Alvaro  Toñanez. I am Lieutenant with the Miami Dade Fire   Rescue Dept (MDFR) in Miami Florida. My current position in the department is the Hazardous Materials Training Officer for the Special Operations Division.  

Miami Dade Fire Rescue is a county Fire Department located at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula and serves a population of close to 3,000,000 residents.  It is the 6th largest fire department in the United States, and the largest in the south east region. It provides both fire suppression and Advance Life Support (ALS) capabilities with dually trained firefighter/paramedics. 

As you are responsible for developing local and regional exercises to counter new and uprising Hazmat/CBRNe threats, what do you see as the current gaps that should be addressed in training, locally & regionally?   

There are several gaps but the ones that affect us the most I would have to say are TIME and BUDGET. What I mean by that is that like most LOCAL emergency response agencies when we are on duty our primary responsibility is to respond to all emergencies. When we place a unit out of service for training another neighbouring unit is going to have to pick up the slack and double its work load. This may not seem much, but when you are considered an ALL HAZARDS RESPONSE agency you are dispatched to all emergencies regardless of severity.  Last year MDFR ran close to 300,000 emergencies. With that said the department does allow for training hours but once again the ALL HAZARDS RESPONSE title means that we are trained as Paramedics, Firefighters, Rescue SCUBA divers, Technical Rescue and Hazardous Materials Technicians, to name a few. So, you see we can keep pretty busy just with training alone.  

On the other hand, an industrial fire service or a wild land forestry service have specific areas of responsibilities required only when that particular need arises allows for more time to train. This unfortunately is not our case.    

To simply put it. By nature of our duties our job gets in the way of our training, and our training gets in the way of our job. 

The other gap like I state is our training BUDGET. We provide HazMat/CBRNE certification biannually, and continuing monthly training to all six (6) of our HazMat units. At one time our training class was 160 hours of instructor lead delivery. Today due to a decrease in budget the class is an 80 hour instructor lead course with the other 80 hrs received through online delivery. This new form of training approach does not produce the quality of responder we would like to have. This means that the HazMat technician is going to have to make up basic skills requirements in the field, while out on emergencies.

Do you believe that the current tools/information/ capabilities available for first responders are sufficient if faced with a major CBRN incident (WMD)?

I can only speak for the Miami Dade County area: Readiness would really depend on the weapon or agent utilized. I would however dare to say that YES we would be able to handle the first few hours of a major CBRNE incident before we received additional assistance from another state or federal entity. We are fortunate at MDFR to have a tiered system of response that brings together a large HazMat component. This includes over 6 HazMat Operational response units with the latest technology in field chemical detection and analysis.

It also includes logistical support with access to equipment and personnel. Another capability is the availability of information at our finger tips through the use of the secured internet and several other reach-back websites. We also have direct access to our Emergency Operations Center, and Fusion Center which are both co-located at our HQ office. All of these features would allow us to initiate a rapid response that would eventually give shape to a larger Incident Command system.

Do you feel that the current crisis/risk communication messages (in CBRN incidents) are well received by the general public, or first responders (or does the general public still lack knowledge on how to act in a CBRN incident)?  

Possibly. I would say that first responders are much more aware than most civilians since it is something that we train for. The most common pitfall for many responders is complacency. This occurs because most emergencies that we respond to come in as worst case scenario and end up being minor events. A cardiac arrest ends up being indigestion, a house fire ends up being a barbecue grill cook-out and a vehicle accident on the expressway is just someone with a flat tire. In a 30 year career complacency is bound to happen. As for the public, the lessons learned from the attacks on September 11, 2001 have been forgotten. We are back to the attitude of “This would never happen here”. Add to this behavior, the COVID crisis has also dampened the awareness for civilian citizens so much that a chemical or a radiological event would most likely be confused with another Corona outbreak. This would trigger actions that could have serious consequences since decontamination for infected patients is not a common practice.

A team from the Miami Dade Fire Rescue Department participated in NCT USA 2022, Photo with Dr. Eric L. Moore, then Director of the US Army DEVCOM Chemical Biological Center 

From your point of view, what are the most pressing interoperability issues/challenges within your field?  

Many come to mind but the one we can resolve the quickest would be joint training. To be truly interoperable we would all have to be utilizing the same equipment and working under the same Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s). This of course is impossible due to differences in budgets through the many different agencies in the emergency response field so the only way to fix the gap in interoperability is training. Training can level these differences since it allows for planning and coordination of the different procedures. It also identifies gaps and most importantly best practices that could then be written into policy.

Unfortunately as I had stated before training too many is considered a commodity and many times not available.

Responding to ammonia emergencies (exposure to ammonia) (table-top vs real-life drills). During this pandemic, virtual drills have sometimes been the only option for CBRN-training/exercise. What do virtual drills offer that real-life drills do not?  

Great question. As a trainer I will tell you that any type of training is always good no matter the format. I believe that each one these has its own benefits and deficiencies but if used appropriately they can both complement each other.

In my line of work as a Firefighter and HazMat Technician everything I do in those fields require physical action. Advancing a charged hose line to apply hydraulic ventilation or applying a C Kit to a leaking Ammonia railcar only happens when physical exertion takes place, and the only way to stay proficient is by practicing those procedures as they would be performed in a real emergency. Proficiency occurs through repetition of action or like the saying goes. “Practice makes perfect”.

Virtual drills on the other hand are pretty much the same as a Table Top exercise because neither require the physical aspect of the job. They do however provide the WHY or HOW of the job therefor enhancing performance. It’s like reading the instructions before you build a piano. If you want it done properly you better open up the manual first.

Virtual drills allow us to understand procedures before they are executed. They may also trigger idea enhancing thoughts that may assist in developing best practice.

Unfortunately, in the last few years we have given more attention to virtual training because it is better received by the masses. Quantity instead of quality.

What is the worst crisis/incident/disaster you have responded to?

I have been very fortunate in my career as an emergency responder to have assisted in several mayor incidents. The first one was the World Trade Center response in New York City (NYC). This occurred early in my career when I only had 5 years on the job. I remember thinking the magnitude and devastation on site were far beyond what the news clips showed on TV. It covered a much wider area. Unfortunately, the force created by 110 floors collapsing on each other did not allow for victims. The chances of survival were minimum so most rescues were performed in the early hours of the response. Since we had to drive to NYC from Miami we arrived 4 days later. We spent our time there performing search operations deep under the rubble pile with no lives to save.

The other disaster was the earthquake in Haiti that occurred at the beginning of 2010. This incident proved to me that an early response in the rite conditions could make a difference in someone else’s life. Unlike the response of September 11th, 2001 we arrived at Port-au-Prince one day after the earthquake occurred. Within hours of our arrival we had already pulled 2 victims from the collapse zone. This operation put to test all those hours of practice and training that all of us had invested in. At the end of our stay in Haiti we had saved 11 lives. The last one was a one year old baby which we named the miracle baby. She was found buried alive under several tons of concrete 10 days after the earthquake had occurred. She recently came to Miami and thanked us for what we did.

What developments technological/policy are you most looking forward to within your field?  

With regards to equipment I remember reading a while ago about a detector that could sense a heartbeat from a distance and through walls. Similar to a thermal imaging camera that is used to detect a heat signature the heart beat detector would allow us to make rapid decisions on entering a hazardous environment only if the victim was alive. To save a life you have to risk a life. I am not sure if that technology ever made passed the testing phase or not.

What do you see as the major challenges within the (CBRN) crisis/incident response for the upcoming years? 

For me the greatest challenge that affects us with regards to CBRN is predicting where and how the new threat is going to come from. As emergency responders we will always have to play the second hand. We are at the mercy of those trying to harm us and the citizens we protect. New forms of threats are just a thought away from becoming catastrophes, especially in the chemical agent arena. Novichok’s and Fentanyl are just a few known chemicals that if released would create havoc in an unsuspected population. It is only after a crisis has occurred that policies are written and new technology is created thus leaving us to guess what the perpetrator has up his sleeve.

About the Interviewee

Lieutenant Alvaro Toñanez is a career Firefighter/Paramedic with the Miami Dade Fire Rescue Department for the last 25 years. He is currently serving in the Special Operations Division as the Training Officer and Exercise planner for the Hazardous Materials Team where he oversees training for more than 300 HazMat Technicians. He is responsible for developing both local and regional exercises to counter new and uprising HAZMAT/ CBRNE threats by testing lessons learned and measuring response effectiveness. Alvaro Toñanez started his carrier in the CBRNE field when he was deployed as a U.S. Marine to Operation Desert Storm as part of the NBC team for Task Force Papa Bear/ 1st Marine Division. He is also a member of the Florida Task Force 1/ USAR team where he holds the position of HazMat Manager for the Blue Team. He has responded to multiple disasters throughout the country including the World Trade Center collapse in NYC, Hurricane Harvey in South Texas and the Earthquake in Port Au-Prince, Haiti.

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