Kent RFA’s hazmat crew shines as regional asset

It glows bright red, stretches about 54 feet long and comes fully equipped to handle all kinds of trouble.

Kent Fire and hazmat team personnel include: from left: Capt. Bob Kelley; Firefighter Neal Houser; mechanic Tom Arnson; Firefighter Geoff Emly; Capt. Jeff Barsness; Firefighter David Frazier; and Kevin Garling

Kent Fire and hazmat team personnel include: from left: Capt. Bob Kelley; Firefighter Neal Houser; mechanic Tom Arnson; Firefighter Geoff Emly; Capt. Jeff Barsness; Firefighter David Frazier; and Kevin Garling

It glows bright red, stretches about 54 feet long and comes fully equipped to handle all kinds of trouble.

The multi-dimensional, diesel-powered tractor-trailer belongs to the Hazardous Materials Team of Station 76, a necessity in the Kent Regional Fire Authority lineup.

“It’s a regional asset. … As you can see, we are quite proud of it,” said Kevin Garling, Kent RFA district chief, as a crew tended to the hazmat trailer, one of the few such engines in the Kent Valley.

The hazmat unit is a product of more than 30 years of work – from humble beginnings to the emergence of a fully-functional truck stocked to meet the service needs of heavy industrial Kent and South King County. The hazmat unit operates as a regional resource but is prepared to reach farther. For instance, it stood ready to help other agencies confront Eastern Washington’s summer wildfires.

Few stations have such a customized machine, one that’s stocked with boots and suits, communication, detection and monitoring equipment, and a laboratory that’s isolated for testing and research.

In a post-9/11 world, the crew must be ready to tackle just about anything.

“We’ve always had constant rail traffic … a constant chain of industrial material moving through here that people take for granted,” said Capt. Jeff Barsness, a hazmat team leader and a veteran of 33 years of firefighting service who has been instrumental in the team’s ongoing success. “Just because it doesn’t stop here doesn’t mean it’s not a threat.”

The threat comes in many disguises. Hazmat team personnel are specially trained to handle dangerous goods, materials that may be radioactive, flammable, explosive, corrosive and toxic. And they must be ready to respond to a wide variety of calls, from transportation accidents involving highly toxic acids to chlorine leaks in industrial facilities to illegal drug labs. Today, the hazmat team must be trained to handle any problems with crude oil trains that routinely pass through the heart of the valley.

Training is constant and adjustments are necessary.

“We learn from every incident,” Barsness said.

From centrally located Station 76, the team has responded to approximately 250 calls over the past two years.

Long call

To illustrate the team’s effectiveness, a gasoline tanker rollover and spill on Interstate 5 a few years ago took the crew on a 14-hour mission – from first response to cleanup. It demanded the full attention of the team’s skills and training and required inter-agency coordination. The team worked with other fire units and the state Department of Ecology to mitigate the spill.

As Barsness recalled, no one caught fire, no one got hurt, adding with a smile, “We probably hold the record for shutting down I-5.”

The hazmat crew is a mix, with the older firefighters sharing the knowledge to the younger set. Veterans like Barsness, Capt. Bob Kelley and Firefighter Neal Houser are passing it on to younger firefighters, like the team’s Geoff Emly and David Frazier.

“It’a nice transition because like any business … you have a large amount of history and knowledge … and how do you transfer that?” Garling said. “Bob Kelley, who is no longer on the team but was a captain here, and Jeff do a great job of passing that knowledge along to others and getting them trained.”

Houser is one of the original members assigned to the team when it began in 1985.

“We had a little bitty one-ton truck, which was essentially a Class B hazmat (not level A) …. to handle (big messes),” Houser said.

By 1989, that tiny truck became a medium-sized one. In time, the need for something greater, something all inclusive, was needed.

“Jeff and I got to talking about it,” Houser recalled. “We noticed all these delivery people in and around the valley … they were all using small semis. Nobody was using straight big trucks. They were all driving something that bends in the middle. What do they know that we don’t know?”

“A lot of hazmat trucks in use today are big, reconfigured ladder trucks,” Houser said. “And when they get them, they’re not happy with them because they can’t get anywhere with them. They are so big and don’t turn well.”

Looking for a cost-effective truck, the Kent RFA found one that could be customized to fit its hazmat response needs. The RFA’s specifications committee estimates it has saved $80,000 to $100,000 by going with a tractor-trailer instead of a “straight frame” traditional fire department type of vehicle.

The tractor-trailer is adaptable, replaceable, similar to a NASCAR team carrier, with a back ramp, plenty of shelving and other amenities.

As Houser pointed out, the unit is built for the long run. It has been in service since 2009.

As Barsness summed up, “We have the right tools, right people, right training.”

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