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The Minot Fire Department doesn’t deal with hazardous chemical incidents on a routine basis. But the firefighters still regularly train to respond to a wide variety of potential hazardous scenarios.
In mid-October, the department spent three days conducting a full-scale training exercise that involved crews responding to a report of a tanker leaking an unknown chemical, with an injured person at the scene.
“The product in this scenario was chlorine, and we do have chlorine come through town at times. The idea was to set up a hazmat response drill to see how we would respond to that,” Battalion Chief Glen Hardy said. “This is something we don’t see that often, but we need to be trained and ready for these types of scenarios.”
As always, protecting human life takes precedence. In the exercise, the first crew immediately approached the tanker and moved an injured individual to safety. Then the response turned to stopping the leaking chemical. But crews must gather a lot of information before they proceed.
First, they have to figure out what chemical they’re dealing with. Every hazardous material has a four-digit United Nations (UN) number that identifies the chemical and its characteristics. That number must be displayed on the tanker.
“From that number, we have a book to look up the chemical and that gives us a whole bunch of info about that chemical,” Hardy said. “We can see all of its characteristics, like if it’s heavier than air or it’s lighter than air. From there, we can decide the best approach to secure the scene and to keep everyone safe.”
In this exercise, the leaking chemical was chlorine.
“Chlorine is a water seeker and it will attack things like your eyes and your lungs,” Hardy said. “You don’t want to breathe that in at all, so that means we need to be properly suited up before we approach the tanker.”
They also use the Hazmat IQ system, which was developed by firefighters in Florida and is widely used across the country.
“We’re not chemists, so this system simplifies it for us,” Hardy said. “We go through a process of narrowing things down and that helps us decide on a plan of attack.”
The firefighters going into the area around the leaking tanker all had strips of pH paper attached to the outside of their protective suit. The strips change color when they react with chemicals, providing more information to the firefighters.
“It’s similar to carrying a meter. The strips help us determine what the atmosphere is like outside,” Battalion Chief Brent Weber said. “In this case, we knew it was chlorine, so we were looking to see if the pH levels changed. That gives us an idea of where our hot zones are and how to react.”
In the training scenario, the first firefighters were prepared to approach the tanker to stop the leak. While they donned hazardous materials suits, vital signs including blood pressure and heart rates were taken from each crew member.
“It’s a requirement to have baseline of their vital signs, and we also take those vitals when they come back out,” Weber said.
“When you put someone in those suits, taking their vital signs is for their safety,” Hardy added. “You get hot in those suits because you’re working hard, so we want to make sure they’re calm and ready to work even before they head into that type of environment.”
The first two-man crew spent roughly 15 minutes atop the tanker trying to stop the leak. As their air supplies reached a specific level, they were replaced by a second crew. Anyone in the hot zone is required to go through a decontamination process that includes a portable shower. While wearing hazmat suits, the firefighters were sprayed and scrubbed by fellow firefighters before removing the suits, which were then bagged and sealed in order to contain any potential contaminants.
“Anything that goes into the hot zone is bagged and sealed when it comes out of the hot zone,” Hardy said.
The department holds regular classes on various aspects of hazardous materials responses, including classroom work and drills to practice setting up decontamination units and other necessary procedures. A large-scale drill is held about once a year.
“We need to run drills like to expose ourselves to areas that we might need to focus on,” Hardy said. “Again, we might not use these skills very often, but we still must maintain high levels of training so we’re able to respond properly when the moment happens.”