Mock disaster drill helps emergency personnel prepare for hazardous materials incidents

MITCHELL – First responders must be prepared for the unexpected, one phrase they live by is – “no call is routine”.

Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. emergency personnel from multiple agencies converged at a simulated traffic accident at 190 Merdian Road. Dispatch said there were injuries with the victims trapped inside the vehicle. The accident involved a large chemical tank carrying anhydrous ammonia.

With Lawrence County being a rural, farm-oriented community, training on possible hazardous materials spills is a high priority. With a low frequency of these types of incidents, the high potential for such incidents occurring makes it important for departments to be ready and capable of handling such emergencies.

Training in the classroom is important, but emergency personnel needs to get hands-on experience to realize how demanding these types of incidents are.

“Hazardous materials like pesticides, fertilizer, and other chemicals that move through Lawrence County by rail, and highway can be extremely dangerous. This makes it very important to train firefighters and make them aware that hazardous materials are not like a house fire or a car wreck,” said Marion Township Fire Chief Paul Gillespie.

“We need to train for any and all hazards that present a danger to our community. Lives depend on it, both for the emergency responders as well as the community around us,” said Wayne Coble Assistant Fire Chief Mitchell Volunteer Fire Department

Mitchell and Marion Township Volunteer Fire Departments along with Seals Ambulance crews were first summoned to the scenario accident scene then others were requested to respond.

Hazardous materials emergency response is not a routine emergency that volunteer fire departments routinely handle. These scenarios can present life and health issues almost immediately to responders, if they do not realize what they are heading into. Firefighters cannot rush into these incidents. It and it is a slow, methodical response where responders must research what type of chemical they are dealing with before any kind of rescue can be made.

Unfortunately, in a hazardous materials response, accident victims who suffers from injuries may become fatalities before they can be rescued.

The simulated chemicals ethion and anhydrous ammonia used in this scenario both can be deadly by themselves. Local fire departments can execute limited rescues but must shut off any active spill by contacting a specialized hazardous materials team. The closest hazardous materials response team is located in Bloomington.

Emergency crews used a variety of skills ranging from vehicle extrication, emergency medical treatment, and communications between the various agencies to test their knowledge, skills, and written plans of all the agencies involved to make sure the departments are ready to handle such events.

“There are still some weaknesses in Lawrence County in preparedness for hazardous materials incidents. Communication, personnel, training, and equipment are the biggest areas of concern for local volunteer fire departments,” said Paul Gillespie Fire Chief Marion Township Volunteer Fire Department.

There are ten volunteer fire departments in Lawrence County and most are already struggling to keep their doors open to continue to save lives. Two volunteer fire departments in Lawrence County have disbanded in the last few years due to lack of manpower, and financial support.

“The best thing that county government can realize is that this type of incident has potential to be very damaging to the environment, the equipment used, and potentially deadly to citizens and emergency personnel,” added Chief Gillespie.

“I think the training itself went well. We started with a scenario and just like in real life everything changed quickly. It does not matter how you write a situation down on paper there is always something that you have to adapt to,” said Wayne Coble Assistant Fire Chief Mitchell Volunteer Fire Department.

To emergency personnel, it was fitting that the event was held on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. Many firefighters and police officers and other rescue crews suffered from the long-term chronic effects from the substances they came in contact with on that day.

Without the proper personal protective equipment, those responding can face long-term health risks both immediately and in the future.

Valarie Luchauer Lawrence County Emergency Management Director stated that the operations allowed Marion and Mitchell Volunteer Fire Departments to practice decontamination and airbag extrication skills.

The participating agencies included the Fire Departments of Marion and Mitchell, Monroe Fire Protection District, Lehigh Hanson, IU Health Ambulance Bedford, Lawrence County Coroner, Seals Ambulance, American Red Cross, Lawrence County Sheriff Department, Local Emergency Planning Committee, and Lawrence County Emergency Management.

Community volunteers reenacted the victims roles in the mock scenario.

Other fire departments assisting during the training were Oolitic, Marshall, and Shawswick Volunteer Fire Departments.

“This was a huge success allowing responders to practice multiple skills and to continuously improve actual response procedures. I want to thank all who participated and especially Lehigh Hanson who went above and beyond to make this drill a success,” said Valarie Luchauer.