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May 12, 2013

Honey Creek, Otter Creek, Riley firefighters train to handle hazardous material

RILEY — Dealing with a hazardous chemical spill can be a highly uncertain and often dangerous job. If multiple chemicals are involved, the uncertainly and danger intensifies.

That’s why intense training is part of becoming certified as a hazardous materials technician – something five new students are completing thanks to a multi-week, 80-hour training course hosted by the Riley Fire Department and sponsored by the Local Emergency Planning Committee.

On Saturday, the hands-on training finally wrapped up, leaving only a state-mandated written exam. Firefighters from several Vigo County agencies took part, including the Riley, Otter Creek and Honey Creek fire departments.

Training Saturday involved the students, in full protective suits, dealing with a simulated chlorine tank leak, a tanker truck leak and more. Often communicating with hand signals, the students worked carefully and patiently under the watchful eye of certified instructors.

Temperatures inside the protective suits rise fast, making the work extremely taxing even on a cool day such as Saturday. After emerging from 35 minutes of work, each responder showed signs of working in high heat under stress.

“The good thing is we had a cool day without a lot of sunshine,” said J.C. Gummere of the Riley Fire Department after being “detoxed” and removing his Level-A hazardous materials suit. “Just from 35 minutes, you’re pretty soaked.”

Visibility can also be a problem inside the suits, making it necessary for technicians wipe down their face shields every several minutes. If gases are escaping into the air and obstructing vision, technicians may need to work by feel alone, Gummere noted.

Each responder wore, inside his suit, an air tank, allowing him to work without any contact at all with the outside atmosphere. Radios were used to communicate with Brian Snow of Snow Fire & Safety Training, Inc., which provided the instruction.

“These are completely vapor tight,” Snow said of the suits, which look like fitted plastic tarps or space suits from a 1950s science fiction thriller. The suits alone can cost about $2,300, Snow said. Add in all the other equipment, and fully outfitted Level A response gear approaches a cost of about $10,000 per technician, Gummere said.

One suit is even sacrificed during the training to demonstrate the proper way to do an “emergency cut out,” Snow said.

Training emergency responders in dealing with hazardous materials is critical in Vigo County due to the massive volume of truck traffic on Interstate 70, all of the rail traffic and other potential sources of chemical spills, noted Tom High, safety officer for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security District 7 incident management team. High is also deputy chief for the Honey Creek Fire Department.

The Vigo County Local Emergency Planning Committee is a broad-based, multi-agency organization dedicated to managing hazardous materials incidents. For more information on the LEPC, see their website at  www.vigocountylepc.com.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

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