Located in Central Florida, about 85 miles northeast of Tampa, the Sumter County Fire & EMS Special Operations team has 30 dedicated members, many cross-trained for technical and water rescue.
Although considered rural, the county has seen continuous growth in population mostly due to a retirement community known as The Villages. During the 2010 census, the population was 93,420. According to U.S. Census data, in 2019 the population is estimated to have grown approximately 48% to 132,420.
The hazmat team covers four major roadways (I-75, Florida Turnpike, US 301, SR 44) and a CSX rail line. To drive economic growth, a rail spur will connect the CSX line to an industrial park. The industrial park will also be a hub for transferring goods from rail to trucking that will move across the county’s major thoroughfares. This, of course, boosts the potential for a transportation-related hazmat incident.
A tire recycler, a cement plant, a metal industry, and an above-ground tank manufacturer are just some of the industrial operations in the otherwise largely agricultural county. The team was tasked multiple times with preparing for presidential, and vice-presidential visits working directly with the U.S. Secret Service.
Despite not being up against either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, water makes up 33 square miles of Sumter County’s 580 square miles.
In addition to monthly training, the hazmat team is responsible for training other fire station crews within the jurisdiction on hazmat response and safety. To get that done, the team uses leak tree and level B training props. One goal is to have every team member cross-trained on all special operations skills.
Securing the necessary apparatus was a huge win for the relatively young special operations team. This includes a 2016 Rosenbauer Freightliner for hazmat, a squad for technical rescue, and a ladder truck for water rescue. Now they can keep all their specialty equipment on frontline rigs and not have to roll a regular response engine.
For the future, the team’s biggest challenge seems to be keeping key personnel in place. Several senior special operations members have been promoted to officer positions, leaving behind a knowledge and manpower gap on the team. And like many other hazmat teams, they know the struggle of trying to be prepared for any situation with only so many opportunities to train.