The Ottumwa Courier

May 22, 2013

Training goes beyond fires

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Our firefighters aren't afraid to run into a fire, said one official, but when it comes to a Hazmat situation, they walk.

On Wednesday, the Ottumwa Fire Department was on the grounds of Cargill Meat Solutions, training as realistically as possible for their response to a toxic chemical accident.

"This here is systematic," said Deputy Chief Cory Benge of the OFD, pointing out the training area. "That's why you don't see [people] rushing around."

That's why they train, too, said Josh Stevens, the Wapello County Emergency Management Coordinator. While no one is rushing, he said, personnel must still be efficient. The businesses that work with emergency response teams, he said, know how important it is. In fact, Cargill has its own onsite hazmat team.

Fire Chief Tony Miller said the OFD team will respond to industrial accidents in 11 counties protected by the department and their hazmat partners in the Southeast Iowa Hazardous Materials Response Group.

"You can't skip a step. You can't make a mistake or people pay," said Miller.

Going into the situation, for example, to rescue an injured worker near a dangerous chemical leak, doesn't even begin until an incident commander, a safety officer and others have determine how rescuers are going to get out. In the hazmat truck, staff members were researching the type of chemical that has plumed out into the environment. During Wednesday's training, three metal tubs were set up outside. When rescuers come out of the "hot zone," they will line up and stop at each of the three stations: Each was manned by a firefighter in a more basic "Level B" protective suit whose job was to scrub the contaminated surface of the suits worn by rescuers.

The rescuers are in "Level A" protective suits. Whereas most clothing is designed to "breath," this stuff worn by firefighters entering the toxic situation, said Benge, has to be basically airtight, otherwise, hazardous chemicals get in. But that makes the suits very hot. They may need to rotate firefighters in and out of the scene.

Miller said before the rescuers enter the hot zone, their vital signs are checked. After they get out of the situation, and out of their protective gear, they see EMTs to have their vital signs checked again. In fact, all of those steps and stations have to be set up before firefighters make entry for the first time.

While the emergency workers are in the hot zone, other firefighters are watching the weather.

"The truck has its own weather station," said Benge.

With all that would be going on, why would they be watching the weather?

Because, explained Miller, the support personnel at the decontamination stations, in the hazmat truck or at the ambulance don't want to get a face full of ammonia. With a strong enough wind, depending on which direction it's blowing, a street may need to be blocked off, or nearby homes may need to be evacuated.

"Last year, we were at a [fire] with an anhydrous ammonia leak. We arrived and immediately had to move the command post [due to toxic fumes]. We got there at 9 p.m. and left at 5 a.m., and the wind changed direction three times," Miller said.

To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark.