Hazardous materials team always prepared for toxic scenarios
by Wes Mayer
In the last few months, the Coweta County Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials team has been busy.
“A lot of people don’t even know we respond to HAZMAT,” said Captain Robby Flanagan with the fire department. “It’s great getting the word out about what we do.”
Last week, the fire department’s HAZMAT team responded to two incidents involving separate suspicious white powdery substances discovered at local businesses. Both times, the powder was identified as non-toxic. The HAZMAT team also responded to the scene of an overturned liquid propane truck on Gordon Road last week. Because the truck was full of flammable propane, HAZMAT was quickly on the scene, and the road was closed while emergency responders and wrecking crews worked to upright the vehicle.
In late February, a suspicious package was reported at the Haralson Post Office, and in late January, a train versus tractor-trailer accident became potentially hazardous because the train was hauling tanks of toxic chemicals. The package turned out to be a wrapped-up container of laundry detergent, and there were no leaks to the train’s tanks — but the HAZMAT team was there, ready to handle the worst possible scenarios.
The Coweta County Fire Department has a level 3 Hazardous Materials team, although the department is close to becoming a level 2 team when it gets more equipment, Flanagan said. Cities such as Atlanta or Savannah have level 1 HAZMAT teams due to their coverage area, but Coweta County still has 23 miles of interstate and miles of CSX railroad tracks running parallel through it. There are also some large corporations located in Coweta that have a number of chemicals on site, so the chances of a hazardous incident in the county are pretty high, Flanagan said.
The HAZMAT team is equipped and trained to respond to a number of different hazardous situations, shortened to CBRNE — Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive. Flanagan said there are 141 full-time and 46 part-time firefighters with the fire department, and at any one time, at least 30 on-duty firefighters are trained HAZMAT technicians. These firefighters are trained not only to handle hazardous situations defensively, but offensively as well, meaning they are the first responders who work to contain any dangers.
Last week, the HAZMAT team utilized a variety of its equipment.
When the liquid propane truck overturned in the county, the team’s main vehicle, HAZMAT 1, was on scene. The big vehicle brings its own operational, science and resource center and a multitude of equipment to handle any situation.
First, the HAZMAT team works to identify the hazard, Flanagan said. In the propane truck’s case, responders already knew what the hazard was. But other times they may have to do some research. On most vehicles or containers carrying a potentially hazardous substance, there is a placard with a specific number — this number identifies the substance. For liquid petroleum gas, the number is 1075.
In the past, responders would flip through a book to find information, but now all they have to do is run the name or number of a substance through their computer on the vehicle. According to Flanagan, with the computer, they can quickly learn the gravity of the substance — whether it is lighter or heavier than air, or if it will sink or float in water. They can also learn the potential health threats or symptoms someone may have if they come in contact with the substance.
Meanwhile, responders will set up the worst-case scenario “plume cloud” model. If there is a major leak and the substance is spread over a distance by the wind, the HAZMAT team needs to know if it will affect any populated areas. Once the substance is plugged into the computer, it will create a map of the area showing the hot zone around the source in red and a yellow conical projection showing which way the hazardous substance may travel.
If emergency responders see the chemical is going to pass over a neighborhood, they then decide whether to evacuate people there or simply make sure they remain inside with the windows and doors shut. According to Flanagan, in the case of liquid propane, they just make sure everyone remains indoors.
HAZMAT 1 also has a fully controllable camera that can elevate to a height of 35 feet, Flanagan said. From inside the vehicle, the camera can be rotated and zoomed in and out with a joystick. In some cases, firefighters will use the camera to identify a potentially hazardous substance from afar. The camera is also used for other purposes, like searching for a missing person from a mobile and elevated perspective.
The truck carries many pieces of equipment, including testing kits for firefighters to detect gases or radiation in the area, protective air-tight suits — pressure tested to protect against 480 different chemicals — firefighters wear when approaching a potentially hazardous area, the department’s inflatable decontamination and rehabilitation tent, equipment and supplies for firefighters and victims, and more.