In 1986, hazmat was a novel idea that was the talk of the fire service community in Somerset County, Pa. Then, a sizable oil spill occurred in the county and they had to ask for help from the neighboring county’s hazmat team. That was the teaching moment that led to Somerset forming the Hazmat Response Team 600.
Fifteen years later, the team found itself at the center of an incident that gripped the world.
Somerset County covers a little over 1,000 square miles in Pennsylvania’s southeast corner. The mostly rural county has 74,000 residents, which has remained fairly consistent since 1920. On Sept. 11, 2001, United Flight 93 crashed in a field in Stonycreek Township in Somerset County. And everything changed.
“Be prepared for anything,” is not some empty mantra for HMRT 600. They know all too well how bad things can get. So they train. They train amongst themselves and they train with other agencies. They drill on the basics and occasionally add in specialty training to keep things spiced up.
That training has been noticed. In 2021, HMRT 600 received the Pennsylvania Office of the State Fire Commissioner’s certification program recognition, which certifies that 75% of its members maintain national professional qualification standards.
HMRT 600 operates with 27 members, most of whom are volunteers. And like other volunteer fire organizations across the country, they struggle to attract new members. It’s an aging team, and getting new volunteers is the biggest challenge the team faces, one member said.
The team operates with three primary pieces of mobile equipment
Hazmat 1 is a large unit that can hold everything and anything. It has an eight-cylinder cascade system that can fill SCBAs all day long if needed. The team also has a 2 ½-ton truck with elevated ground clearance. That rig is good for off road — Somerset County has the highest point in Pennsylvania, Mount Davis, and can get some crippling snow storms. And the team has a foam trailer with a purple K powder keg.
HMRT 600 keeps training and keeps recruiting new members. Because while many hazmat teams acknowledge that the worst can happen, HMRT 600 has lived through it.