A chlorine spill is something no community wants, but something every community can face.
Over 2,700 facilities nationwide store significant amounts of chlorine putting Americans at risk of serious harm from explosion or leaks. Facilities use chlorine as a disinfectant in wastewater treatment plants, sewage plants, and food processing facilities, and to manufacture plastics, insecticides, solvents, and household cleaning products.
A correct and quick response to a spill mitigates chlorine’s harmful effects before anyone gets hurt. A slow and incorrect response can damage lungs, eyes and skin, and harm the environment.
It’s a situation that requires rapid response, mitigation, and area evacuation.
Youngstown, Ohio, knows full well the havoc a chlorine spill can wreak on a community. Five years ago, 500 gallons of chlorine leaked from the city’s water treatment plant. The spill and vapor cloud threatened facility workers, first responders, and neighboring residents.
But thanks to a swift response by the Mahoning County Hazardous Materials Response Agency, team members contained the catastrophe without injuries and environmental impacts. “A sizable catastrophic release can lead to thousands of deaths and many more thousands displaced. But because of our quick response, no one near the cloud as chlorine leaked sustained serious injuries,” says Dep. Chief Adam Noble.
The team’s response to this incident was impressive. But what makes this team unique is the 23-members who volunteer their time to train together continuously.
FIND THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Research shows over 90% of people want to volunteer, but only 1 in 4 Americans actually do. The same research reveals the Top 3 barriers to volunteering as:
- A lack of time
- Inflexible schedules
- Uninteresting volunteer work
Those same barriers apply for volunteer hazmat teams. “Everyone wants to be a firefighter, no one wants to be the hazmat guy,” Noble explains. “Volunteerism is dropping everywhere, and people are afraid of hazmat and don’t want to deal with it, so finding volunteers is a constant challenge.”
But hazmat expertise is a skill this 425-square-mile area desperately needs. Manufacturing facilities like V&M Star, oil fields, and agricultural sites call the county home. Trucks carry hazardous materials across the county on Interstate 76, Interstate 80, and Route 11 every day. And two major railroads run trains of tankers filled with hazardous materials every three to four minutes.
“We have a mix of everything, and we must stay prepped for just about every hazmat emergency,” Noble says. “Our full-time fire departments lack the staffing to take it on.”
Fortunately, the Mahoning County commissioned organization has worked out the kinks over its three decades in operation. Originally, they recruited members from local fire and EMS departments and required hazmat certification. But now the team welcomes police officers and medical professionals, and delivers certification training itself.
“We attract a good mix of people who bring a lot of qualities to the table,” he says. “We have people from rural areas and from cities.”
Mahoning County Hazardous Materials Response Agency now pays each member a small stipend for the time spent training. “I cannot say that the stipend recruits more people, but it definitely helps morale,” Noble says.
KEEP IT REAL
Hands-on, realistic, and demanding training that is also engaging and fun contributes to a well-trained team, according to Noble.
Mahoning County Hazardous Materials Response Agency trains bimonthly to keep members’ skills up to date. The response team certifies every member in hazardous operations, emergency response, weapons of mass destruction, and confined space rescue. Most team members are also EMTs.
“We keep training fresh in monthly maintenance nights and Saturday training days,” Noble says. “On maintenance nights, we assign a group of tasks for each officer to oversee. It might be meter maintenance, decon, or something else.”
Team members work together in their assigned areas, but officers periodically move volunteers to other areas to broaden their skills. For example, the member who handles meters might move to decon or vice versa.
Saturday trainings are more hands-on and less administrative. A recent Saturday covered Raman spectrometer use. The team has had spectrometers for over a year. But new members were unfamiliar with them and existing members needed a refresher. Noble brought in a company representative to conduct this training.
The team also uses nearby resources to beef up its training. They recently had an expert from Cleveland State University conduct an 8-hour confined space rescue class, paid for with county funds. “We try to have an outside entity come in quarterly,” Noble says. “Confined space is a focus this year because we have many new members. Confined space is a specialty that everyone must train in.”
The team requires all members to take part in training opportunities. Noble adds they have gone back to basics to meet the needs of new team members. Hands-on training in the classroom and online training meets these needs. “We are making sure everyone is up to snuff. We don’t use these skills and equipment all that often, so we must make a concerted effort to train on them,” he says.
The word hazmat to many firefighter professionals is synonymous with boring. For this reason, Noble works hard to make sure training opportunities aren’t “death by PowerPoint.”
He keeps training demanding and hands on to engage the team. Members work with spectrometers, gas meters, photoionization detectors, bio detection kits, and Dräger tubes. Members also train with the team’s 2009 Spartan, 2001 International decon rig, Ford F-250 command vehicle, a mass decon trailer, and spill response unit.
PROMOTE A PREPLAN
Hazmat teams must prepare responses for the hazardous materials in their community. To do so, they must know what hazards exist and how to respond to them.
FEMA and the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) gather Tier Two reports from all Mahoning County businesses housing a reportable quantity of chemicals. This list includes everything from the local gas company to the largest manufacturing facilities.
The list shows the chemicals being stored; how companies store them (such as a pump, a vat, or a barrel); and provides blueprints of every building, with storage areas mapped out. Mahoning County Hazardous Materials Response Agency receives the information, as do local fire departments.
“We use this data for tabletop exercises that plan our response,” Noble says. As a fire and hazmat instructor at the state fire academy, Noble uses his educational skills to develop training scenarios and engage other fire departments in training exercises.
“Everyone gets hazmat training during basic firefighter certification, but few get much recurrent hazmat training,” he says. “When we train with other fire departments, we go through scenarios at actual locations in our area. We’ll ask if this building catches on fire and the fire is next to this vat of chemicals, what else is a concern? Will you fight this fire? Or is it better not to? What do you know about this chemical? It helps us preplan our response.”
He adds, “This is a huge departure from in the past. Before members of local fire departments knew we were here, but we didn’t interact with them. We stayed on our basketball court and they stayed on theirs. We worked on building better relationships, so that everyone works well together at actual events.”
When relying on volunteers to cover an area rife with hazardous materials, a complacent attitude toward training is a big no-no. Mahoning County Hazardous Materials Response Agency covers its bases with rigorous and regular training that keeps members’ skills high.
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