Local emergency workers ready for catastrophe

Kent and Renton firefighters spent nearly two hours at a large-scale decontamination drill May 15 to help prepare for a potential hazardous materials spill or the release of a poisonous gas by a terrorist group that could injure or kill residents.

Kent Fire Department’s Hazmat Team

Kent Fire Department’s Hazmat Team

Regional drill focuses on major event

Kent and Renton firefighters spent nearly two hours at a large-scale decontamination drill May 15 to help prepare for a potential hazardous materials spill or the release of a poisonous gas by a terrorist group that could injure or kill residents.

Nearly 100 firefighters from agencies throughout King County participated in the drill at the Renton Fire Department Training Facility, 1900 Lind Ave. S.W.

Firefighters, who have been trained to be hazardous-materials technicians in addition to their regular firefighting skills, worked in a mock setting to decontaminate nearly 100 people who had volunteered to be victims.

In the scenario, the victims were “contaminated” when an unnamed group released mustard gas in the crowded lobby of an office complex housing an abortion clinic satellite office. Several victims were contaminated with a brushed-on brownish oily substance. Dozens posed as having trouble breathing. Others acted as if they had sustained cuts or broken bones, the result of people rushing to get out of the building.

The drill involved fire departments from throughout King County working in unison to respond to the large number of victims.

“There are firefighters from all over the Puget Sound area, so to get everyone to pull together in a coordinated effort is a big accomplishment,” said Capt. Roger Kacmarcik of the Kent Fire Department Hazardous Materials Response Team, speaking after the drill. “The more you practice, the better you’ll be. This was preparation for a large-scale incident when you need all of the players. We have not had a drill of this size.”

Firefighters must take 40 hours of training to become a hazardous-materials technician. They must take at least another 40 hours of training each year to remain qualified to be a technician.

Local emergency officials conduct these drills four times a year, but typically on a much smaller scale. In addition to Kent and Renton, Thursday’s exercise included firefighters from Seattle, Bellevue, Eastside Fire and Rescue, Sea-Tac Airport and other King County departments.

“It’s good to see faces and work with each other,” said Renton firefighter Will Aho, who helped assist victims from the decontamination tents to a medical-check area. “We also find out the capabilities of other departments so we know how they can assist us.”

Firefighters used hoses to wash off victims initially and then sent their patients through decontamination tents set up by the hazardous materials response teams for further washing and cleaning.

“They are cleaned of all contaminants, put in temporary clothing and sent off to the hospital,” said Capt. Karl Rufener of the Renton Fire Department. “We can even send family units into the same tent so they can help wash each other.”

State Homeland Security grants helped pay for the drill. Each jurisdiction that participated in the event also contributed funds.

Most actual hazardous materials calls to Kent and Renton involve smaller spills or leaks, but the potential for a larger spill or leak exists with so many industries in both cities as well as the numerous trains that transfer hazardous materials through both towns, according to officials.

“It ranges from a semi-truck diesel spill on the roadway to a highly toxic chlorine gas,” Rufener said of the few dozen hazardous-materials response calls each year in Renton.

Rufener said city officials work with businesses on safety measures in an effort to avoid any hazardous spills or leaks. The Kent and Renton hazardous materials response teams also would be involved in responding to any major calls in other parts of King County.

“That’s one of the reasons for this drill,” Rufener said. “If there’s a hazardous materials spill in Seattle, this helps.”

In 2004, hazardous materials response teams from Kent, Renton and other King County agencies were called to the Renton industrial area to a leak and explosion in the Olympic Pipe Line that carries diesel and jet fuel to Washington and Oregon. There were no injuries, but thousands of gallons of fuel leaked out and flames shot as high as 20 feet before firefighters controlled the eruption.

“We sent our responder team, but it did not involve any patient decontamination,” Rufener said.

Prior to Thursday’s drill, firefighters knew little about what kind of incidents they would face.

“We knew it would be a larger head count,” said Capt. Jeff Barsness of the Kent Fire Department. “But the chemical was unknown and the logistics were unknown until we got here.”

The ability to move more than 100 victims through the decontamination tents in a little more than an hour impressed Kacmarcik.

“This was the first time we tested the system to this magnitude,” Kacmarcik said. “It was a much larger scale than we typically do as a group.”

Each agency will evaluate the drill to help compile an overall report on the response to the event.

“It will help us to identify where we need to focus our training,” Kacmarcik said.

Contact Steve Hunter at 253-872-6600, ext. 5052 or shunter@reporternewspapers.com.

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