One of the most serious events that can occur in any community is a hazardous materials incident. Personally I learned about this the hard way. Many years ago when I was a patrol sergeant in charge of a midnight shift we were dispatched to a train derailment. I was the first arriving officer and when I crested a hill I could see rail cars spread out all over the area and railroad tracks twisted up like pieces of spaghetti. It was a spectacular scene and I was quite fascinated with the crazy destruction of those tracks and rail cars. It was a freight train so there were no people to rescue. I could see there were overturned tanker cars but I failed to realize that the cars could be leaking any number of dangerous substances that could have killed me and anyone downwind. When the fire department arrived I waved to the fire chief to come down into the scene to meet with me from his staging location up the hill and upwind. He shook his head and motioned for me to come to him. He asked me if I knew what was in those tanker cars and if I had checked the placards on the sides of the cars which tell us what is in the cars. I’m sure the look on my face told the whole story…..(fortunately it turned out to be ethyl alcohol so I’m here to tell the tale). But I NEVER forgot that mistake.
I’m happy to report that our Auburn Hills police and fire are much more prepared to handle a hazardous materials spill in terms of training and equipment than we were in those days long ago.
At one time, the Hazardous Materials team was part of the Technical Rescue team but after the attacks on 911 concerns about vulnerability around the country prompted a significant interest in improved training and technology for hazardous materials events. A second major influence has been an ecological concern for our air and waterways and the impacts of events on the natural world including people. There can be substances released into the air that are colorless and odorless yet can kill any people in its path. These materials move through our communities daily on railroads or in trucks on the freeway. One firefighter pointed out to me that highly toxic materials can be shipped in small-sized containers by regular small package shippers that you see in the community all the time. The substance may not be dangerous by itself but if the truck is involved in a crash and the substance ends up mixed with another small container of a conflicting material–very hazardous conditions can result.
Here is a video that gives you some idea how an incident can happen and can give you an idea what the response looks like. Haz Mat Response
The Oakland County Hazardous Materials Response Team is made up of 3 teams: north and south plus the career fire departments along Woodward and Southfield FD. The team is another example of shared services among the communities in Oakland County. The teams each have 4 squads with 4 team leaders with 8-12 team members in each squad for a total of about 50 personnel. They have 4 specialized trucks and if you see one you’ll recognize it because they are blaze orange in color. They are located around the county with 2 in Troy (centrally located), 1 in Independence and 1 in Commerce. We have two personnel on the team: Firefighter Sumi Dinda, Ph.D and Captain Tim Farrell. Our teams are trained in specialized programs at Michigan State University and by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). In order to be a team member a person must be trained to “technician” level like in the Technical Rescue team. The Haz Mat team has a significant amount of technology, expensive to buy and maintain. Most of the equipment has come to the team by way of federal grants. In fact the trucks were purchased and equipped as a result of grants. So if you wonder where your tax dollars are at work –stop by one of these fire stations and I’m sure they’ll show you.
When on a scene the leaders divide their personnel into required tasks: confinement and containment of a hazardous substance; decontamination and sub
stance identification. The team stabilizes the incident and private companies are called in for the actual mitigation.
The technicians look like they are in space suits when they are in their personal protective gear. They do an important job that we all need. Our team recently andled a situation on I-75 on March 17. A truck transporting buckets of a substance that turned out to be roofing tar overturned and spilled the contents. The buckets were leaking into a wetlands area that ultimately impacts the wildlife and plant life. Like most communities we have an ordinance that causes us to bill the company or individual who causes the hazardous condition for the costs of the team and the cleanup. Taxpayers should not be liable for these kinds of avoidable events.
Another interesting aspect of the work of the Fire Department.