When disaster strikes: Firefighters train for real life hazmat
With a large industrial park, two train tracks carrying over 40 trains per day and four intersecting highways populated by semi-trucks carrying hazardous materials, the city of Claremore is one bad accident away from a serious public safety hazard.
For those reasons, the Claremore Fire Department is one of only five large CBRNE units in the state of Oklahoma.
They are charged with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive response, not just in their typical response area, but for much of northeast Oklahoma.
This week, firefighters refreshed their training on hazmat response, discussed the responsibilities involved in providing this service to the state and gave details on a real life example of how this training comes into play.
Unlike the rush of fighting a fire, everything in hazmat response is intended to play out slowly and methodically.
A typical fire would have all units on site and fighting the flames in under eight minutes.
However, following a hazmat call on the level of, for example, a gas leak caused by a forklift damaging some pipe, there would be cause for concern if boots were on the ground, fixing the issue, in under an hour.
The Claremore Fire Department ran that exact scenario all week, under OSU Hazmat Instructor and Tulsa Firefighter Dan Newbury.
“Good and bad, we don’t do this very often,” Newbury said.
Hazards make up an even smaller percentage of the fire department’s calls than structure fires. While that means there are few public health emergencies, it also means trainings like this are the only real experience most of the fire department has.
When a hazard call is made to dispatch, the immediate priority is for command to establish a safe area around the incident, with a hot zone, warm zone and cold zone.
Through dispatch, command will determine whether everyone safely evacuated, what substance is being leaked, and any safety conditions that responders need to know before going in.
The commanding officer will designate a safety officer, a medic, someone to keep track of logistics and paperwork, a minimum three-person team in charge of decontamination, and a minimum of two, two-person teams to enter the hot zone in hazmat gear and fix the issue.
The department will also request mutual aid from surrounding departments to assist in support roles with decontamination, logistics, medical aid, and security.
The entry team will have their vitals taken before they suit up, and receive a safety briefing before they enter about the hazards of the chemical and the space.
Included in the briefing will be information about the substance being leaked and the chemical reactions it can cause.
Entry teams alternate in and out of the hot zone based on completion of a task or oxygen supply.
“These guys will get worn out extremely fast,” said Claremore Fire Captain Zane James. At maximum, an entry team with be inside the hot zone for 15 minutes at a time to avoid overheating inside their suits.
Their responsibility is to locate the leak, deliver tools to site, and fix the issue with whatever tools are available.
There are hundreds of different tools on the hazmat truck that could be useful depending on the situation. Every firefighter in the department has to know how to use each tool.
They also have to be able to improvise in real time on equipment that full-time plumbers and mechanics would struggle with.
Meanwhile, they have to keep constant supervision on their oxygen supply through a heads-up display on their masks.
According to OSU instructor and retired firefighter Alan Barnes, it’s not unusual for a hazmat response to take four or more hours from start to finish.
“This is why firemen hate hazard. If you can’t kick in the door, open the nozzle, wash everything out the back door, salvage and overhaul and be back in time to watch OU/OSU second half, they’re upset,” Barnes said. “Hazmat incidents last four or five hours minimum.”
When the leak is fixed, firefighters have to completely decontaminate their suits in the warm zone before they can return to the cold zone and get their vitals taken again to ensure they are still in good shape.
In real life, a hazmat situation often evolves out of a call for medical assist or response to a vehicles crash.
Recent examples include someone who stayed in their home after lighting several bug bombs, a leak in a semi-truck carrying gasoline, and a story that made TV news a few months back involving Daylight Donuts.
Fire Captain Travis Timms was the commanding officer on duty for a medical call about an unresponsive man in the Daylight Donuts off of Will Rogers Boulevard.
“When we got there, a lady met us outside the structure and was talking about her husband being done inside the structure, her mother being done inside the structure and her son being sick,” Timms said. “The first thing we had to figure out was how many people do we have here.”
While Timms was asking questions of the women, firefighters went inside to check on the patients.
When they noticed multiple patients with the same syptoms, and started to feel woozy themselves, they realized something was wrong.
“Had we known there was an IDLH (immediate danger to life or health) condition in atmosphere, we would have approached it completely different,” Timms said. “But we got in there and found ourselves in the middle of it.”
“We were so close the victims that I made the decision to tell my guys to get them out,” Timms said.
Timms said that as they were extracting victims, he went to open the front door to get airflow in the building.
Before reaching the front door, he realized he couldn’t breath. Or more accurately, that even though his airway was operating properly, very little oxygen was getting to his lungs.
Carbon dioxide from the recently refilled pop machine leaked into the air, and in a closed space, began to displace oxygen.
Below 18 percent of oxygen, people begin to pass out. Below 15 percent, and the oxygen meters the fire department uses stop working.
Everyone in the building was rescued and spent multiple days in the hospital recovering from asphyxiation.
As captain, Timms made the call to choose extracting the victims over backing out and switching to official hazmat procedure.
“I honestly felt that if we went back, they weren’t going to make it,” Timms said. “I had to weigh that real quick, and that was tough. I hated being in that situation.”
Following extraction, Timms’ crew continued to provide medical care while a team from another station showed up to investigate the cause.
“The switch is scary, when you go in there thinking one thing and it turns out to be completely different,” Timms said.