HAZMAT decontamination tent has multiple uses

by Wes Mayer

The decontamination tent is one of the Coweta County Fire Department Hazardous Materials team’s most important pieces of equipment — it serves many purposes and helps save lives.

In one recent incident, after an employee of a local business opened an envelope and discovered a white powder inside, all seven employees inside the business were under risk of being contaminated. When the fire department responded, their decontamination tent was deployed, and the employees were immediately sent through it.

The decontamination tent is fitted with its own plumbing and lighting, and can be inflated with a single air pump — or using firefighters’ single air tanks — in as little as five minutes, Flanagan said. Inside the tent, up to six different areas can be walled off for privacy with two routes for people to be sent through for decontamination.

With an incident like the suspicious white powder, Flanagan said emergency responders will first talk to the direct victims who had contact with the substance and learn if there was any threat with the powder, where the victims exactly came into contact with the powder, and if there are any reactions or noticeable irritations. They will also try to take a sample of the substance and run it through their computer on their vehicle, HAZMAT 1, in order to identify it.

To decontaminate the employees, the firefighters used a dilution method. The employees stepped into the tent in the first enclosed room, took off their clothes and were flushed with water, either using a handheld shower hose or being sprayed through spouts in the tent — firefighters compare it to going through a car wash. Flanagan said the tent is capable of heating water, but if it’s an emergency, the water is going to be cold.

The tent also has mats on the floors that sift and collect all the potentially hazardous substances on the victims. The water used in the tent can come from any fire department vehicle, and the “gray” water that comes out of the tent can either go back into another vehicle or into a separate reservoir so the water can be properly disposed.

After the victims complete the showers under firefighters’ directions, firefighters perform a pH test on the victims’ bodies using a sensor. Every person has an exact pH level, Flanagan said, and if they get a normal reading, the victim may be released and given a robe or blanket to cover up. Sometimes, as a precaution, a victim may be transported to the hospital for evaluation.

Of course, the victims are naked during this, and the firefighters try to keep it as private as possible. During the last step, when firefighters are checking the victims’ pH level, Flanagan said they keep the process professional and follow the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

“In the end, it is just a job we have to do,” Flanagan said. “At the top of the list is your life safety. Next is your privacy.”

Flanagan said that the fear factor of being covered in a toxic chemical usually outweighs a person’s feelings toward privacy. If someone thinks they may be in danger, they won’t hesitate to strip down and get something harmful off their body.

There are other methods firefighters use to decontaminate victims, Flanagan said. There is a dry decon where firefighters thoroughly brush victims off, and there’s a chemical-based decon that uses a specific decontaminating chemical to neutralize a harmful one. The chemical decon is rarely used, though, because there is a higher risk of a victim having a negative reaction, Flanagan said.

The tent can be used in a number of other ways, too. If needed, the individual shower areas can be removed and the entire tent can act as a big group shower — if there is a large group of people who need to be immediately cleaned, this is sometimes the only option.

When not acting as a decontaminating tent, though, Flanagan said it can serve as a rehabilitation tent for firefighters to remove themselves from the elements. If firefighters are fighting a fire on a sweltering hot day, air conditioning units can be set up inside — if it is a cold day, the tent can be set up with heating units. The tent can also sustain up to 50 mph winds. The decon tent is even capable of being expanded if the department decides it needs to purchase additional space.

“When we buy our equipment, we try to consider them for multiple roles,” said Deputy Fire Chief Todd Moore.

The fire department purchased the tent in 2012 using Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds, Moore said. But just because the fire department is in charge of the tent, that does not mean it is the only department who uses it. Any other public safety department in Coweta County that needs to use the tent is welcome to. Just as the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office shares its helicopter, the fire department shares its multifaceted equipment.

“Anything we have is available to other agencies, and we feel that is reciprocated,” Flanagan said. “Our job is to make sure life safety is taken care of first, and that we take care of citizens and people living here. We try to be one team that works together.”



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