The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa
Sep. 22—A nearby ethanol plant, multiple rail lines and multiple major highways running through Des Moines County mean area first responders need to be prepared in the event of a hazardous-materials leak.
The Burlington Fire Department spent Saturday through Monday working alongside other agencies to train for events such as gas leaks or other train-related emergencies.
“We call them high-risk, low-frequency events,” said Captain Brandon Howard, who is in charge of Burlington Fire Department’s hazmat team.
Howard explained that firefighters may join the team if they have received hazmat training as an additional certification from the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Those who do have hazmat training also get a slight bump in pay. Increases in pay are how the fire department encourages people to obtain certifications other than the basic firefighter and EMT certification required for the job.
Being on the hazmat team involves monthly meetings and trainings, but a training like this is quite out of the ordinary. According to Fire Chief Matt Trexel, it took more than two years to put together. Instructors from Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and Amtrak were on site to run the drills, and firefighters used real train cars to conduct the drills.
During the drill with BNSF, firefighters practiced closing off valves that theoretically could lead to a leak. The firefighters practiced with several valves as different cars could involve different types of broken valves.
For the hazmat trainings, firefighters were required to don level A hazard protection suits, which ensure that the only air firefighters are exposed to is from tanks designed to work with the suit. This is particularly important if the firefighters were to deal with chlorine gas or any other number of gases which could be poisonous if breathed in during an emergency situation.
Some hazmat calls require level A hazmat suits, but it is still important to train with the suits as they are heavier and clunkier than other gear the firefighters would usually wear.
Several firefighters agreed their regular turnout gear is hot, but the level A hazmat suits are much hotter, a problem exacerbated by the heat, which was over 80 degrees on Monday. As a result, regular breaks and medical monitoring were in place to ensure firefighters did not succumb to heat-related illness.
The chances of Burlington running across an emergency situation requiring a hazmat team are higher than normal. After all, several rail lines run through the county and an ethanol plant is just across the border in Lee County. This year, the department responded to two hazmat team calls involving car accidents involving tanker trucks.
As part of its preparedness, the department has a specific hazmat truck used only when there is a hazmat situation or a major fire, such as the Tama Complex fire, which burned for several hours and required so much overtime that the city spent thousands of dollars to put out the fire.
“It is set up for large incidents. … We use it to shelter people,” Howard said. “Its main purpose is to deal with hazmat calls.”
The hazmat team does not just consist of members of the BFD, but also members of the Mediapolis and Danville fire departments as it is a community-wide team.
Several other entities that aren’t part of the hazmat team also got a fair bit of training this weekend.
Members of the Community Emergency Response Team got a chance to practice their traffic control skills. If a hazmat incident were to take place, CERT would be responsible for helping conduct traffic control and providing other logistical or operational support measures so first responders would have time to complete their tasks.
Des Moines County Public Health Chista Poggemiller and one of her nurses also was at the scene performing health checks on firefighters as part of the rehabilitation center. The firefighter rehabilitation center is a temporary medical center set up at emergencies to help protect firefighters recover from heat or exertion related illnesses.
“We always support emergency medical services and emergency management in these kids of events,” Poggemiller said, “If there was a citation where there was a chemical spill or hazmat situation, we would be there to support them however we need to.”
In most situations, Superior Ambulance provides this support for Burlington firefighters. However, in a large event like a hazmat situation or train derailment, Superior Ambulance might be needed to transport victims. After all, Burlington’s paramedics are also it’s firefighters and it might not be possible to spare teams to take civilian victims to safety.
Poggemiller said she does not anticipate that public health will take over the job of caring for firefighters in most incidents, but it is important that firefighters are cared for even when it’s just a training exercise. Assistant Emergency Management Coordinator Cindy Bowen said members of the CERT team also would assist with the firefighter rehabilitation center in a major emergency.
Fire departments from as far away as Davenport participated in the training as well. Ron Berchett, a captain with the Davenport Fire Department, said he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to train with Amtrak and BNSF, though it is the Canadian Pacific Railroad that runs through Davenport.
Pen and paper can only do so much, Berchett said. In this weekend’s drills, his firefighters got to experience the stress of putting on a hazmat suit, climbing on top of a railcar and carrying out their duties.
The Davenport Fire Department is one of three teams in the state allowed to respond to incidents involving weapons of mass destruction. The two other teams are in Des Moines and Council Bluffs.
For those interested in becoming a part of the CERT team, Des Moines County Emergency Management will hold a free CERT academy Nov. 6 and 13. For more information, contact emergency management by calling (319) 753-8206.
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