LANL Emergency Response Training Center Creates Realistic Training Scenarios To Simulate Almost Any Event

LANL Emergency Response Technician Jason Martinez, a Los Alamos High School alumnus, rates the performance of a HazMat team during the recent HazMat Challenge at the LANL Emergency Response Training Facility at TA-49. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

The HazMat team from the 64th WMD-CST, NM Army National Guard from Rio Rancho took first place with 580 points out of a possible 600 points in the recent HazMat Challenge at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Training Facility at TA-49. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Participants in a scenarios during the 2022 HazMat Challenge at LANL’s Emergency Response Training Facility remove a ‘victim’ from a train carriage. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


The Los Alamos Reporter recently visited the Los Alamos National Laboratory Emergency Response Training Facility at TA-49 where seven teams were competing in the 26th Annual HazMat Challenge. 

The purpose of the facility is to provide unique training opportunities for emergency responders from the local and state level as well as federal response teams by providing a variety of realistic props such as aircraft, rail cars, vehicles, residential and commercial areas.

Chris Rittner, Team Leader of the Emergency Response Team at LANL, said his group can create scenarios to simulate pretty much any event responders would encounter out  in the real world. At TA-49, the training is free for state and local departments. 

“We don’t generally charge any of the responders unless it’s more of a long-term response training that requires a lot of consumable equipment, tools, or infrastructure. But then we work with them to make it equitable and they get the best training value that they need,” Rittner said. “We can direct it from the first responder that’s just starting out to the volunteer firefighter to seasoned Department of Energy  nuclear emergency response teams that have been doing this for years but are looking for a better venue to actually practice their skills in a more realistic environment with minimal simulation.”

He said the HazMat Challenge was not held the first year of COVID but began ramping back up last year with four teams. That was a slow start to knock off the rust and get things back to where they used to be and this year there were teams from Clovis Fire Department, the 377th Emergency Management Team from Kirtland Air Force Base, a composite team from Nebraska State Police Emergency Management, another composite team from the Department of Defense in the Washington, DC area, a team from the DOE Y-12 site, the New Mexico National Guard’s 64th WME Civil Support Team, and of course a LANL team. 

“The way we set up scenarios is we have a two-hour block of time and we run it like a real response. The teams know at a certain time they have to show up here. They have an idea of the title of the scenario but they won’t know what they’re getting into. They get their initial briefing here like they’re being dispatched out and then they’re taken to their scenario area where they’re given the details, just like a dispatcher or incident commander would give them, coming to this problem, this location, this is what we have,” Rittner said. “They then have to ask for further information and they make the determination of what protective equipment they need, what the hazards are, what their isolation zones are and how they are going to attack and solve the problem.”

The teams have 90 minutes to accomplish all that and then at the end they provide a briefing to the Challenge controllers who act as incident commanders. They are graded on the skills they use and how they communicate with the incident commander. Rittner said all the skills for the scenarios are based on the  ER portion of the HAZWOPER regulation in 29 CFR 1910.120, which is what dictates the training for the teams and the operational requirements all across the nation. Specific skills such as patching a pipe or dealing with a gas tank are laid out in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regulations.

“The legislation tells us what to do and NFPA tells us what we need to do and how to do it. All of our grading and how we develop our scenarios is based on those two sets of requirements and guidelines. It’s nothing that they’re just making up as they go along. This kind of training – we give them 36-40 hours during this week – helps their team but it also does a heavy lift off the local departments because then they don’t have to dedicate time to refresher classes,” Rittner said. 

He noted that the other advantage New Mexico has is having the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Management’s HazMat grant program that helps departments around the state with funding for travel and per diem for the training. 

“The only thing it doesn’t cover is the backfill of shifts but it doesn’t cost the departments anything to come up here to train,” Rittner said. “We also work closely with and train closely with the Los Alamos Fire Department. They weren’t able to participate this year because of staffing issues.”

Emergency Management Technician Kevin Brake showed the Reporter the location of a scenario based on an outbuilding at a high school that was loaded with a bunch of extremely old chemicals from the chemistry lab.

“It was all left for 40 years and they found out that it wasn’t real happy. So we got to build off that to say that this is an outbuilding near a high school and that some of the high schoolers made a little hangout there. They broke a pipe, a steam line, and dropped in a chemical,” Brake said.

As part of the scenario, a  “patient” was stuck in the building. Brake said material is drawn from scenarios from all over the place. Incidents that the team has read about.

“All of these scenarios we have set up are very plausible or happened in real life. What we have found Is that some of the stuff that happens in real life, you can’t make up,” he said.

Rittner said the ER DIvision puts all their new hires on their Challenge team and segregates them from everything else that’s going on. Many of them have been at LANL for six or seven months. 

The Department of Transportation Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Division has been collaborating with the LANL group for 10-12 years, Rittner said. 

“This partnership has really grown and this year we’ve had a couple of deputy administrators that are interested in helping us further develop this to see how we can get some more underserviced departments out here for the free training so that they can improve HAZMAT training around the nation,” Rittner said.

Rittner’s colleague, Emergency Response Specialist Kevin Brake, also pointed out a scenario of the collision of a van carrying three boxes of fireworks with a flatbed truck carrying an intermediate bulk container (IBC) with a corrosive liquid. The IBC has sustained some damage and is leaking.

“They have to segregate them to a safe location. A pneumatic still and a saw will be used to drill inside the tank and a grounded pump will be used to transfer the liquid from the damaged tank to a new one.

That technique can be used in a number of ways such as in one local instance where we had the two semis back to back that missed the turn up here on the switchbacks going up to the Jemez. We had to respond to that and we used this technique to drain the diesel out of the saddle tanks,” Brake said.

He noted that working with other HazMat teams from around the nation allows the local team to learn to network, learn from other teams, and build relationships with teams they may have to respond with in the future

Rittner said a lot of HazMat teams will go to federal training centers for training on fundamental skills.

“A lot of aspects of the training are notionalized because with their high through-put they can’t really afford to damage or lose training assets. At our range when we train EOD teams, we allow them to actually do live shots so we provide the opportunity to run their explosive shots if they need to destroy a package or breach a door or cut into a wall,” he said. “A lot of our props are designed to be damaged, destructible and expendable. So instead of telling us how they would do a shot, we respond to them, ‘Don’t tell us how to do it’, set up the shot and fire it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll figure out another way, set up that shot and let them actually practice.”

Brake said it’s the same thing with radiological training.

“When teams go through rad training they have a controller next to them telling them what their meter is reading. For us, we’ll add a large rad source and we don’t tell them anything, they are relying on what their equipment is actually telling them. Go find the source. Use your instrument and rely on that. Most teams don’t actually see their meter move at other locations. They never get to use real sources,” he said.

Rittner explained that water and compressed air are used to simulate large liquid and gas leaks. 

“For things like chemical agents, we buy certain products like from Smith’s that we know will give false positives on our instrumentation so we can simulate instrumentation reading without actually using hazardous chemicals,” he said. “Another thing about our facility because we’re federal, we can’t compete directly with other federal training facilities, so we’ve created a niche for ourselves. They get their core training at these other federal facilities and then we allow them to practice here and we will custom design the scenarios for them like we do with HazMat Challenges, so they can take what they learn at all these other facilities and put it together here in a safe environment that’s as realistic as we can provide.”

Rittner described an emergency response that took place the day before. He said all of a sudden the rad readings would spike. 

“What we determined was that a storm had come in and we were getting a lot of lightning and the source was in a plastic container so if we touched our meter with the plastic container, the static electricity caused the instrument to spike. Even though we have been doing this for all these years, there are still little quirks that we pick up. The more sensitive they make these instruments now, the more prone they are to these little deviations so we’re learning all about that and every team is in the same boat we are and it’s constantly a learning process,” he said.

The Los Alamos Reporter ran into 2015 Los Alamos High School alumnus Jason Martinez who is tasked with planning and execution of the HazMat Challenge. She has known Martinez from when she worked at LAHS while he was a student there. Martinez attended New Mexico State University in Las Cruces where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in business -marketing.

“After my first year there, I switched to finishing my degree online so that I could work at LANL as a student. I helped with the Hazmat Challenge the first year I was a student and I really enjoyed it so I asked the team if I could join them. After about two years, I got hired on full time, and long story short, now I’m responsible for planning and execution of the event,” Martinez said.

The results of the Technical Events for the week were:

1st  Place: 64th WMD-CST, NM Army National Guard from Rio Rancho (589 out of 600 possible points)

2nd Place: Department of Energy Y-12 Fire Department (577 points)

3rd Place: Nebraska State Police/Emergency Management Composite Team (574 points)

The LANL Emergency Response Team was the Hazmat Obstacle Course winner.

A mannequin is set up in a vehicle for one of the scenarios at the 2022 HazMat Challenge. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Team members suit up while another team member chats with dispatch on the radio. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Boxes of fireworks in a truck set up for a HazMat Challenge scenario. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

HazMat Challenge team members figure out how to move a ‘victim’ from a train carriage. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Participants investigating a scene in a train carriage are photographed by observers. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Emergency Response Group Leader Chris Rittner, left, and Emergency Response Specialist Kevin Brake chat during the 2022 HazMat Challenge at TA-49. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Two suited-up participants head towards the scenario set up for them at the LANL Emergency Response Training Facility during the 2022 HazMat Challenge. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Preparing to enter the train carriage during a scenario at the 2022 HazMat Challenge. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

A room set up and ready for emergency responders to investigate during the 2022 HazMat Challenge. Photo by Maire O’Neill/