Columbia County emergency officials constantly plan, prepare and practice for hazardous materials disasters like the massive explosion Wednesday at a Texas fertilizer facility.
“We’re ready for these things,” county Emergency and Operations Division Director Pam Tucker said. “It’s something that people don’t think about until something like this happens. … This is what we do every day.”
The county’s Hazardous Materials Response Team, formed through Columbia County Fire Rescue, trains at least quarterly to respond to chemical and hazardous materials situations.
“We’re going to respond to anything and everything,” said Battalion Chief Danny Kuhlmann, who heads the team.
About 30 members of the team are trained to a technician level, the third of four training milestones, capable of going into hazardous materials situations to stop leaks, turn off valves and handle other dangerous situations.
All of the firefighters are trained to an operational level, meaning they can control the scene, stop runoff and decontaminate and care for the injured.
“We have progressed into a very good team that can take a lot of initial action including decontaminating people so they can be transported for medical care,” Tucker said.
Though the county lacks large chemical production companies like Augusta, chemicals at county industries such as Quebecor World, fuel and oil at John Deere and batteries at Club Car pose a risk, Kuhlmann said.
The biggest risk lies in the railways and the 17 miles of Interstate 20 that run through the county. A study completed in 2010 showed more than 150 potentially hazardous chemicals travel the interstate daily in more than 6,000 vehicles. Tucker organized a large-scale training scenario in 2010 to prepare for such a disaster.
The hazardous materials team would be the first responder and primary agency in an emergency, but the county’s emergency plans involve many agencies in numerous support functions, including notifying the public of dangers; transporting injured; sheltering evacuees; and monitoring, maintaining and cleaning up hazardous materials.
“It’s a team effort,” Tucker said. “There is no one department who is everything to everybody.”