On the front lines of Summit County’s hazmat response
On Friday evening, emergency workers from Summit Fire & EMS and the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District swung into action in Silverthorne where a semitruck was spilling gallons of diesel fuel onto the roadway.
Within three hours more than 60 gallons of fuel was soaked up off the street, 50 gallons of fuel was offloaded from the semi, and most importantly, the responders were able to keep the fuel from igniting or flooding into the sewer system.
The crew’s response was swift, but no surprise. Over the last 15 years Summit County’s hazardous materials responses have shifted from an all-volunteer team into the purview of the fire protection districts, and the group’s capabilities to respond to hazmat incidents have grown considerably.
“At one point it was an all-volunteer hazardous materials team,” said battalion chief Ryan Roberts with Red, White & Blue. “We had multiple trucks and multiple trailers, so if we got an incident we’d have to get them hooked together. We’ve transitioned that into the fire departments. Now we have the dedicated vehicle that’s set up and ready to go.
“The biggest thing is our capabilities have continued to improve. At one point we’d really just stabilize the incident, whereas now we try to assist in cleaning and offloading. We know what the economic impact is of roads being closed. So we’ll help to try and keep the processes rolling as much as we can.”
Every firefighter in Summit County is currently certified in some capacity to assist in hazmat incidents from the High Country Training Center in Frisco. Certifications include hazmat operations, a standard certification for firefighters around the country. Additionally, every crew in the county boasts a hazmat technician, a specialist with over 80 hours of classroom and practical training that can take control of an incident, advise the chief, research the material, figure out the necessary equipment and more.
“The thinking part is really happening through the technicians, while people trained in operations fall into more of a support role,” said Lt. Aaron Kaltenbach with Summit Fire & EMS.
Hazmat responses in the county are typically a joint effort between Summit Fire and Red, White & Blue. But unlike the district’s other services, which are funded through residential property taxes, Summit County and every town in the county all pitch funds toward properly equipping and maintaining the hazmat team, a move that has paid dividends over recent years.
While most fire engines carry some hazmat materials, generally used for smaller issues such as oil spills on the road or carbon monoxide leaks, firefighters utilize special equipment for larger incidents. Housed inside Summit Fire’s Station 2 in Frisco is the county’s dedicated hazmat unit, an engine filled with high-tech equipment for combating caustic and toxic materials. Among the most important tools used in hazmat responses are a mass spectrometer — used for identifying and confirming different types of chemical hazards, a general hazard detector that notifies responders when hazardous materials are present, a photoionization detector that recognizes dangerous gases like chlorine and ammonia, thermal imaging cameras to determine temperature changes in closed containers, non-sparking tools and more.
Much of the equipment is designed to help responders simply determine what the hazardous material is, the first priority in any incident. If the material is already identified, hazmat technicians will research the material to determine its properties — whether or not it’s flammable, it’s reaction to water, safe distance for citizens — and get to work figuring out methods to clean it up. If the material is not known, a reconnaissance team will enter the “hot zone” wearing some kind of personal protective equipment to take a sample that will either narrow the scope of potential materials or positively identify it.
“I think technology definitely plays a role in being able to more rapidly and accurately identify some of the materials we’re dealing with,” said Kaltenbach. “And the technology continues to improve by leaps and bounds every few years it seems like.”
Personal protective equipment ranges from firefighters’ normal bunker gear all the way to a “level A” suit, an orange suite made of heavy plastic that prevents even vapor from entering and touching a responder’s skin.
Once on scene, there are two stages to a hazmat response. The first is the rescue stage, moving citizens to safe areas and decontaminating them if necessary — a process which includes cleaning off in “kiddie pools” with soap, water or solutions to neutralize acids. An ambulance also always tags along on hazmat responses, both for the safety of citizens and responders. The second stage is plumbing — stabilizing the incident using absorption materials like kitty litter and floating booms to prevent the material from spreading or entering ecologically sensitive areas like sewers or rivers.
Once a cleanup is complete, depending on the severity and materials involved, the crew will decontaminate, and place all hazardous materials (including protective gear) in safe containers for pickup by a third party company for disposal.
The fire departments deal with hazmat calls on a daily basis, typically small-scale incidents, though there have been a number of notable hazmat incidents in Summit County over the past few years, each highlighting the often diverse nature of potential materials and types of responses.
In 2009, firefighters responded to a fuel-tanker rollover on Loveland Pass, and chose to let a massive fire burn rather than dealing with containing the runoff. In 2012, firefighters were forced to don protective gear and line areas of I-70 with citric acid to neutralize a major lime spill on the roadway. In 2013, firefighters responded to a chlorine gas leak in Keystone, calling for a response in “level A” gear and requiring decontamination afterward.
“With emergency responses no two calls are ever alike,” said Roberts. “Known significant hazmats definitely get your stress level up more. … It’s not your bread-and-butter daily operation. But overall I think everyone is well-trained. With hazmat especially we know that if we need to rescue somebody we’re going to rescue them. But we’re also going to step back, do our research and treat this like a very methodical procedure.”
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