Responders strengthen hazmat training
Imperial County firefighter Enrique Robledo puts up danger tape around a mock hazardous materials scene Friday morning in Heber. (CHELCEY ADAMI PHOTO / March 2, 2013)
By CHELCEY ADAMI, Staff Writer
HEBER — At any given time, an earthquake could cause chemical containers to overturn, a freight truck or rail car could wreck, or a water treatment plant chemical container to leak, and effective and efficient response to any of these hazardous materials emergencies could make a large difference.
In turn, Valley firefighters and others have been receiving invaluable hazardous materials emergency training over the past few weeks as part of a unique state program.
The four-week program is offered free through the California Emergency Management Agency’s California Specialized Training Institute and with federal funding.
CalEMA’s course is state-certified and standardized so fire departments within the mutual aid system are all trained in the same way.
All the other states in the nation apply their funds and train differently.
“This doesn’t appear anywhere else in the United States,” CalEMA Hazardous Materials Training Instructor Mark Lodge said. “If a train crashes and nobody knows what to do, people get hurt, people get killed. These guys are trained to deal with those issues.”
Participants in the course included not only firefighters from Brawley, El Centro, Calexico and Imperial County fire departments but also outside fire departments like Los Angeles County, Barstow and San Diego as well as U.S. Border Patrol agents.
The hazardous material training they received teaches them how to do initial intervention in the case of an emergency, “to stop it from going further,” Lodge said.
“They’re just doing the real dangerous part,” he added while laughing.
In an area like Imperial County where there’s lot of rail and truck freight coming through as well as agriculture using chemicals like pesticides, the knowledge and training could prevent disasters from rapidly expanding.
“If a train carrying chlorine comes off a track and starts to leak, it could leak for days and hundreds of people could die,” Lodge explained. “With training, in hours it can be stopped.”
The frequency of hazardous material emergencies varies place to place, and scenarios range “from 5-gallon buckets of paint spilled on the side of the road to a full-blown train car off the tracks,” said Paul Andrews, Contra Costa Health Services Hazardous Materials Specialist.
The 160 hours of training provided by CalEMA is often more than double the hours required in other states, which is typically 40 to 80 hours, meaning California hazardous materials emergency responders “are trained better than most of the other jurisdictions in America,” Andrews said.
All of the instructors are either current or former hazardous materials responders.
“It’s really nice to have these guys here,” Lodge said. “These guys are the gurus.”
Part of the training includes making sure participants can work efficiently in the protective chemical suits since once inside, temperatures can rise 25 degrees above ambient temperature with 100 percent humidity in minutes, a potentially highly dangerous situation during Valley summers.
Program participants even shot basketballs at hoops while wearing the suits in an obstacle course.
“We try to give them familiarity with the suits so they’re comfortable and can work in them,” Lodge explained.
Calexico Fire engineer/paramedic Oscar Pesqueira wore the chemical suit as part of a mock hazardous materials exercise Friday morning as the program wrapped up its third week.
“It’s all new. It’s very interesting,” he said. “I think it’s important not just for my department but for the whole county. With the county being short on resources, we need to build up on this. It’s great.”
Staff Writer Chelcey Adami can be reached at 760-337-3452 or email@example.com.