Sandwiched between Tampa and Orlando, Polk County Fire Rescue’s hazmat team must be ready for both manmade and natural threats. The county stretches across 2,011 square miles and has a population of about 725,000.
The county often finds itself in the path of hurricanes and other tropical storms, which can create hazmat and technical rescue incidents. For example, Hurricane Irma came through in 2017, as did three hurricanes in 2004, with Charley being the strongest of them.
The team provides hazmat response to all the county and to the city fire departments within the county. In addition, it also provides technical rescue for some of the cities in the county.
Tourism, which brings additional people, and agriculture are two of the county’s biggest industries. The biggest, however, is phosphate mining. Central Florida’s bone valley, which covers parts of Polk County, is one of the nation’s largest phosphate mineral deposits.
Phosphate deposits can contain significant amounts of naturally occurring heavy metals. And mining operations that process phosphate rock leave tailings piles with elevated levels of cadmium, lead, nickel, copper, chromium and uranium. Unless properly managed, these waste products can leach heavy metals into groundwater or nearby estuaries.
As a unit, the hazmat team trains monthly. They also train daily when members are on shift. The team hasn’t begun to train with outside agencies yet, but a plan for that is in the works.
To protect their jurisdiction, the team operates three regional squads, one tower, one heavy rescue, one special operations command vehicle and one special operations battalion chief. Heavy Rescue 9 has a full complement of hazardous materials equipment, along with VMR, rope and confined-space equipment.
For collapse and trench rescue, they have a chase truck and trailer. The three squads which provide everyday fire and EMS support along with a supplement of tech rescue and hazmat equipment. The tower provides the same, along with a 100-foot platform.