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The crew on a TVF&R 'hazmat' team talks about their differences from regular firefighters.

COURTESY OF TUALATIN VALLEY FIRE & RESCUE - A full hazmat team arrives at a site, having been called out because the likelihood of hazardous material on the scene.Firefighters fight fires.

The job description is right there in the name.

But not all firefighters have the same task. While most focus on the fire, others focus on the stuff that burns. The stuff that freezes or flows. The stuff that escapes or evaporates or explodes.

The stuff that lurks.

Welcome to a hazmat, or hazardous materials, unit.

"Some things don't play well with fire. Some don't play well with water," said Capt. Andrew Klein of the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue Station 53, on Southwest Scholls Ferry Road north of Hall Boulevard. "We get called in for the 'what-if' scenarios."

Station 53 and Station 34 share a 30-member unit that responds differently to some incidents than their fellow firefighters. They can fight fires, when that's what's called for.

But if the material on site is potentially hazardous, they let another unit "knock down" the fire. The hazmat team's job is to know — in advance, if possible — what material is at the scene; what chemical reactions to expect; and how those things might find a way to escape the scene.

Is the hazardous a solid? Even when it's at very high temperatures?

Is the hazardous material a gas? And if so: Is it heavier or lighter than air? That tells the team the likelihood of a chemical plume escaping the scene. They have to know about the hazards on the scene. Propane displaces oxygen, for instance; it's hazardous because it could burn you, but also because it could suffocate you.

Is the hazardous material a liquid? If so, when it interacts with the water being poured on a fire, where will it head? Into storm drains? Into a river? And what then?

"People sometimes think we're a bunch of biochemists," Klein said. "We're not. But we're trained."

The most telling detail about hazmat units, as opposed to other firefighters, is in their response to an incident, according to Ty Darby, deputy fire marshal. Firefighters respond quickly, focus on victims and put out fires, he said. Hazmat units are a little slower and a little more methodical.

"Hazmat mitigates quickly but safely. It's a process of deductions," Darby said.

The ordering principal for firefighters: life safety first — for both civilians and firefighters — followed by property damage, and then runoff.

Klein said the ordering principal for hazmat also prioritizes lives first, but it places environmental damage before property damage.

"If damage to a building means less damage to the environment, we can live with that," he said.

And if the unit isn't "a bunch of biochemists," try telling that to Austin Fiske, a firefighter and paramedic at Station 53.

You know those four-color, diamond-shaped stickers you see on tanker trucks? Fiske can read those like a novel: Blue is health hazard; red is flammability; yellow is instability; white is a more specific hazard.

Fiske has an amazing array of high-tech tools at his disposal in the hazmat firetruck — Klein calls the truck part "tool kit," part command center.

Fiske's utility belt includes radiological sensors, a temperature gun, thermal imager and leak detection devices. He's got a chlorine monitor. He has an LEL monitor, which looks for "lower-explosive-level" chemicals in the air. He has a spectrometer.

And what he doesn't know, he can look up. He displays a well-thumbed and greasy copy of the NIOSH Pocket Guide, distributed and updated annually by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. With that, he can look up chemicals and their properties; exposure limits (measured in parts-per-million); the weight of gases (will they float away or are they heavier than oxygen and hang around the scene?); and the natural state of chemicals (some stuff looks solid enough until it gets hot). He also can look for less obvious threats (which chemicals can result in frostbite?).

"Is it a fire problem or a toxicity problem?" Fiske asked rhetorically. He gave a wave toward his assortment of tools. "We figure that out."

Some of these "toys" aren't quite so high-tech.

Got a leaky barrel? The truck includes a number of plugs that can be pounded into place. If there's a relatively small leak under a truck and close to a storm drain, Fiske can deploy a deflated kiddy pool: ideal of quickly gathering liquids before they escape.

The team also can enter a scene in regular firefighter turnouts, or equipped with various levels of safety clothes, including those with a self-contained breathing apparatus, the bulky, hot and durable head-to-two turnouts known as a Level A turnout.

There are 13 hazmat teams in the state of Oregon. The unit that lives, cooks and recreates at Station 53 can get called in for any incident between Beaverton and the Oregon coast. They also can serve as the backup for units from Portland or Salem.

And they're trained for the unthinkable: a purposeful, terrorist incident on American soil. Military organizations list three primary kinds of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, biological and chemical.

And should the unthinkable happen, it'll be Station 53 that rolls to the scene. COURTESY OF TUALATIN VALLEY FIRE & RESCUE - A team in Level A turnouts test a building for the presence of hazardous gases.

By Dana Haynes
Managing Editor
503-939-4370
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