Local firefighters are picking up the slack left by Tooele County’s budget woes to form a new hazardous materials response team.
Ten firefighters from the North Tooele County Fire District, Stockton Fire Department and Tooele Army Depot Fire Department completed a Hazmat Technician training course in November and December. They were also joined by five firefighters from the Ogden City Fire Department.
The three-week, 120-hour course included chemistry lessons and hands-on training for various types of substances, said NTCFD Fire Chief Randy Willden. It was sponsored by the Utah Fire and Rescue Academy, and the Utah State Fire Marshal’s Office.
“This hazmat course, it’s a big deal,” said Willden. “It’s a lot of hours, but it’s also a lot of chemistry involved, very tough stuff. It’s a very intensive chemistry course. Obviously it’s not college chemistry, but they’re learning what happens when you put this chemical and that chemical together on the street.”
The chemistry portion was taught in the first week of the class, which then went on hiatus for Thanksgiving week. It concluded the first two weeks of December with learning how to use and maintain equipment, and hands-on situation training.
“They had to go outside. There were a couple of days where it didn’t get much above 15 degrees,” said Willden. “They had to go out in their [equipment] working on a tank that had water leaking out of it to simulate acids leaking out of a tank.”
Although being outside in below-freezing temperatures sounds like a hardship, the firefighters said the equipment they had to wear insulated them from the cold. It also beat doing that much in-suit training in warmer weather.
“The cold weather was phenomenal,” said Capt. Kirk Arnold of the NTCFD. “The suits don’t breath very well —they’re not supposed to—so it’s humid and nasty in there. You start getting a little warm in the winter, but in the summer, you just bake in there. They’re not overly user-friendly.”
Jared Carlson, a firefighter with the Stockton Fire Department, said classmembers quickly learned tools of the trade to deal with inherent problems, like face shields fogging up.
Carlson was one of three volunteer firefighters who completed the training. He took three weeks off of work from Mountain West Ambulance and the Lehi Fire Department. He also stepped away from his cabinet-making business to attend the training, which he had expressed interest in for more than two years.
Though difficult, Carlson said, the class was worth the effort.
”It’s nice to protect ourselves and the community we serve as a fire department,” he said. “It helps you to be aware and how to deal with [a hazardous incident] and mitigate the problem, so you don’t make a worse situation for the places we live.”
Arnold said he was excited to do the class for both professional and personal reasons.
“My dad was a firefighter and so it’s kind of like it runs in the family,” he said. “It’s fun for me. I love it. The training’s fun because you learn something new and, let’s face it, if you stop learning, then you’ve learned everything you’re going to learn.”
He added, “The thing with hazmat is it changes day by day. Someone puts something together and that’s going to hurt somebody—and with the stuff running up and down the highway. And what people don’t understand is if a freight truck or any of these things running down the road, if they’re carrying two chemicals, there’s potential for those things to mix and create something bad.”
Although hazmat response has traditionally been under the purview of the Tooele County Sheriff’s Office, that area’s funding was a casualty of the county’s budget crisis during the past year.
After a two-man hazmat team in the sheriff’s office was cut, hazmat responsibilities were reassigned to fire departments in the county when they were shifted to Tooele County Emergency Management last February.
However, Willden said, in order to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for responding to hazmat incidents, which range from fuel spills to hazardous chemical combinations, four members of a 15- or 16-member team have to complete the level of training in the course.
That team would be lead by Bucky Whitehouse, who inherited hazmat through Tooele County Emergency Management. Whitehouse is emergency management director for the county.
“We’re going to create a team out of that group,” Willden said. “This is kind of the first cog in the wheel, getting these level A guys. And then we can get the other guys with other levels of training to fill it out.”
While the training is necessary for worst-case scenarios, as well as much more common but less severe chemical spills, Whitehouse said the firefighters who completed it should be commended.
“It’s a significant investment and the trainings are pretty intense as far as the chem class,” he said. “It takes a huge commitment from whoever’s going through training, and then the technical aspects, depending on your knowledge going into the training, can be pretty intense, too. We’re proud of all the crews who went through the training.”
Whitehouse said the county team would only be deployed after an initial assessment of first responders, who assess whether it can be taken care of locally or if they need to call in the higher-trained team.
“All of the fire departments from the individual areas are the front-line response for hazmat,” he said. “Typically, a scenario is any time a jurisdiction has a hazmat call. They will have their fire department paged, and that fire department will respond, do an assessment about the material that’s been spilled. If they can handle it with their own resources, then they’ll do that. If they need additional resources, or the problem exceeds the scope of their training, they’ll call the county team.”