Navigating the HazMat suit was part of the recent training. Photo by Steve Whitmore

As with everything in life, the only constant is change and that holds especially true for the safe handling and control of hazardous materials.

That was most evident recently as several fire departments converged at Garfield Reservoir in South Pasadena for training. Under the guidance of the Vernon Fire Department’s experienced Hazardous Material Squad, South Pasadena, San Marino, San Gabriel and Pasadena fire departments underwent training in the latest techniques regarding decontamination of fire personnel and citizens during or after exposure to hazardous materials. The training was held over three days: Sept. 4, 7 and 8. It included classroom instruction as well as demonstrations. Garfield Reservoir was used last Friday, Sept. 8.

“Basically today, we’re doing some multi-company training with Vernon HazMat 77,” said Chris Szenczi, fire division chief for South Pasadena and San Marino, last Friday before training began. “The focus is going to be decontamination training for our two small departments. Often times in a HazMat incident, our departments will get assigned to assist in that evolution which is decontamination. We’ve asked Vernon 77 to come out and give us an overview of the decon process and what their expectations would be of us if one of our engine companies was assigned to that discipline.”

There is nobody better at combatting hazardous materials than the members of the Vernon Fire Department’s Hazardous Material Squad. It has been combating untamed chemicals for the past quarter-century and is the go-to team for these incidents for a wide-ranging region that includes 13 communities in the San Gabriel Valley as well as Long Beach, to name just a few of the cities. There were three squad members at the training last Friday.

This extended pole has a camera that can help identify any substance. It also doubles as a weather station.

“We’re going to actually set up the decon process and then one of the HazMat team members will suit up in a full-decon suit and go through the process,” Szenczi said. “Then we will have an opportunity for our personnel to get in a lower-level suit and go through that process.”

And the process has changed over the last 25 years. In fact, two important changes have occurred.

“There are more chemicals today than there was 25 years ago,” Jason Rosa, Vernon Fire Department, said while he was setting up the demonstration. “And there is the added motive of terrorism that wasn’t around 25 years ago. The intent has changed.”

Rosa and his partner, Norm Sutherlin, declined to name some of the everyday household chemicals that exist today that were not around a quarter-century ago because they didn’t want to “plant any ideas” in somebody’s over-active mind.

Moreover, the added element of terrorism immediately requires contacting other agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others.

“We contact the FBI, Homeland Security, and anybody else we have to when that motive has been determined,” Rosa said. “There is an entire protocol that we follow when it’s like that.”

The squad works out of a state-of-the-art, multi-purpose, fire engine that has a camera extending several feet in the air that doubles as a weather station. There is also a massive array of lights that also extend several feet in the air along with several protective suits, oxygen tanks, and other necessary items needed to combat HazMat incidents.

The state-of-the-art Vernon fire engine has all the necessary tools to combat any unfolding HazMat emergency.

The camera, which can pinpoint a substance hundreds of yards away, is used to identify the substance and the weather station is used to judge the potential for uncontrolled spreading, as one example. Wind, they say, can be a huge contributing factor along with other weather anomalies.

“Keeping up with all the changes, whether it be new substances  or technology, is challenging,” said Sutherlin. “We do keep up because we have to. But we cover a huge area and we have to be ready.” The squad used to have more personnel, but has been reduced due to budgetary restraints.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” Sutherlin said. “Our electronic equipment allows us to identify a substance way faster and more specific than ever before. We can solve a situation oftentimes quickly and that’s good.”

Steve Whitmore
Author

Steve Whitmore is the editor for the South Pasadena Review. Steve has spent more than four decades as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist with a 16-year stint as the senior media advisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Steve comes to us from the Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, where he covered politics and was a columnist.

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