Inside Hazmat – responding to the worst

single-meta-cal May 30, 2017

A sketchy character is spied setting a fire in a garbage can outside an industrial building. A witness calls 9-1-1 and when responders arrive, they discover carcasses of several animals inside the can.

A police officer enters the building, following a dark labyrinth of halls and rooms. He is overcome by a noxious gas but is able to call for assistance before losing consciousness.

That’s the basic imaginary scenario that has brought together personnel from the Huntsville Fire & Rescue Hazmat (hazardous materials) team and other agencies to one of the wings of the old Johnson High School building.

It’s part of a concentrated three-day period of exercises for the Hazmat unit, which is accompanied by representatives from the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency, the Montgomery-based Civil Support Team (CST) and the U.S. Army.

“The whole focus of all this is the joint operation capability of CST, the fire department, EMA and the FBI,” says Sgt. Paul Shaw of the CST.

This serves as a reminder that a firefighter’s life isn’t merely lolling around the fire hall waiting for a bell to ring. The regular firefighters and the myriad specialties within Huntsville Fire & Rescue are constantly engaged in practice to stay sharp. Think of them as a football team that practices and studies five days a week to be sharp for those four hours on a Saturday afternoon. There are frequent, smaller Hazmat training sessions, and this elaborate operation has taken place twice in 18 months.

The Hazmat team is based at Stations 5 and 15, with the decontamination truck and technical rescue units kept at Station 5 on University Drive and the entry Hazmat truck kept at Station 15 on Sparkman Drive. There are some 55 members of the Hazmat team. Its trucks are equipped with the most basic needs for rescue and survival – fresh clothes, power bars, water, extra batteries – and the most elaborate equipment for communication and for detection and identification of potentially dangerous materials. There are monitors to be worn on the firefighters’ suits and to be placed inside the contaminated area.

“It’s a very slow process. You have to be slow, you have to be thorough. We have standards for gathering the substances.”

Huntsville Fire & Rescue has the only Hazmat team in North Alabama with the equipment and expertise to identify unknown substances and the only team in Alabama that has a full-time decon team.

Chief Steve Britton is the supervisor of Special Operations, which includes the Hazmat unit. He’s typically even-tempered but demanding. He doesn’t hesitate to chasten a firefighter who made only a slight error. In a real-life scenario, tiny glitches can trigger major catastrophes.

Shaw has designed this particular scenario. As firefighters enter the building, the standard first priority is the rescue. There is the police officer to carry to safety. While doing so, they must be observant of their surroundings. All the circumstances have pointed to this as a Hazmat situation, so part of their gear includes various instruments to measure radiation or other dangerous chemicals.

In Shaw’s test, he has various lab equipment sitting out that is obvious. Less visible is a small cracked capsule spilling forth white powder and a formula for a lethal gas. There are real animal corpses. Said Shaw, “We throw some distractions out there.”

Observation is an essential talent as anything for firefighters, a special ability to see the whole picture clearly in the blur of chaos and smoke.

“Our guys will come in doing recon, looking for people,” Britton says. “It will probably be a life safety thing. We get all the information we can.”

Once the firefighters determine there is indeed the presence of a dangerous chemical weapon on the site, the intensity ratchets up and, in other ways, actually, slows down. It’s much the same as a response to a natural disaster, like a tornado. There is frenetic activity in the initial rescue operation, then something of a deep breath while evaluating the situation and determining the next plan of action.

The Hazmat team arrives in earnest. They lay plastic pools along a sidewalk outside the building so those exiting the building can be hosed down. A tent is erected to provide privacy for victims changing from contaminated clothing into scrub suits stored on a Hazmat truck.

Huntsville Fire & Rescue would have long since also notified Emergency Management, which would begin coordinating efforts and reaching out to the Civil Support Team. Huntsville Police (HPD) would likely dispatch its bomb squad, complete with a robot, and HPD would have secured the scene.

Huntsville officials would be in constant contact with the CST as it makes its way from Montgomery, offering an evaluation of the scene. In this mock disaster, the CST and HPD are already present, so time is sped up. Often as not, though, officials would urge a “wait-‘til-we-get-there” suggestion, assuming there is no more immediate and obvious danger.

“It’s a very slow process,” Shaw says. “You have to be slow, you have to be thorough. We have standards for gathering the substances.”

The likelihood of such a scenario arising is, happily, extremely remote. But without practice and planning, the ability to cope with it properly is even more remote.