Hazmat Challenge is serious business

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By Tris DeRoma

If you thought your week has been challenging due to the unpredictable weather, it was nothing compared to what hazardous material technicians had to face during Los Alamos National Laboratory’s 18th Annual Hazmat Challenge.
Facing real-world chemical leak scenarios of all types: indoor, outdoor, overturned trucks, leaking railcars and other challenges, hazmat techs from all over the nation competed at Tech Area 49 this week to see who did the best, and safest job of cleaning up the simulated spills. According to Chris Rittner, a Hazmat and training specialist with LANL, the weather only slowed down the competition a little bit.
“We kind of take a ‘train like you fight’ mentality. If it’s raining lightly, that doesn’t stop us. The only thing that stops us is heavy rain or lightning, and that’s just strictly a safety issue, because we don’t want undue safety hazards while conducting training exercises,” he said.
Started in 1996, the competition was originally just meant to sharpen the skills of LANL’s hazardous materials teams, but the competition quickly grew by word of mouth to include teams from across the nation.
Featured at Tech Area 49 are various buildings, chemical tanks, railcars, trucks and other props and environments set up for the Hazmat teams to work in and interact with.
When Hazmat teams arrive at the site, they are briefed about the situation and given general instructions by their observers. It’s then up to the team to go about cleaning up the simulated spill and rendering the site safe again.
Observers from various agencies, including LANL, the New Mexico Firefighters Training Academy, Los Alamos Fire Department, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation and others observe how each team goes about the job at the scene and judges them accordingly. They are judged on such broad terms as how they communicate and interact with each other to more minute details such as how they transport and pass their tools to each other.
Though it’s a competition, it’s pretty serious business.
Rittner said it has to be. It’s one the reasons why the competition started in the first place.
When concept of Hazmat teams was just getting underway, there were too many incidents where teams which were successfully trained to deal with one dangerous aspect of a chemical, ran into disaster when they came up against unfamiliar factors that triggered other deadly reactions from that same chemical.
Teams may have known a chemical was flammable, but they may not have known that when it comes in contact with a certain metal, it emits a deadly gas.
That’s why, Rittner said, all of the scenarios set up at the competition generally come from real life accidents, either ones they heard about in the media or were suggested to them by other hazmat teams.
Even though there’s very little railroad traffic in many parts of New Mexico, the railcar leaking anhydrous ammonia scenario has proven to be one of the most important and popular scenarios, especially for Hazmat teams from Northern New Mexico.
“Because of the mutual aid agreements, if something happened, it’s almost a guarantee that teams from Northern New Mexico, Santa Fe, Los Alamos and elsewhere will be called down to Albuquerque or Farmington to help them out,” Rittner said. “If you get a hundred of these types of railcars that have derailed at once, one team of 12 guys won’t be able to handle it all. You have to bring extra resources in.”
As the competition, and its success became more widely known, LANL contributed more funds to make the competition more realistic.
When the competition first began 18 years ago, most of the props and sites were donated or acquired through salvage. The railroad site was built with much detail through donations and advisement by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroad, right down to the type of track the railcars the Hazmat teams practice on rest.
Everything in all the scenarios is as detailed as it can be, including the shipping paperwork found in the vehicles and buildings at the scene of the “accident.”
Besides the LAFD and the state firefighters training academy, the state office of Homeland Security has been involved in the competition, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In other years, they’ve had the FBI, New Mexico State Police and the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator involved as well.
“So what we provide these teams with is not the Hollywood version of events, but what they will actually have to deal with in the field,” Rittner said.
Of course, while everything else is real, the chemicals are not. Usually chemicals consist of just water, or perhaps vinegar, and that’s only to replicate a litmus paper test or something to that effect.
To cue the teams as to what chemical they’re supposed to be cleaning up, effects and clues are often mimicked through theatrical smoke, water dyes and paperwork found on the scene.
In this year’s event, 13 teams participated.
In the technical division, National Guard 64th Civil Support Team (CST) finished first, the Midwest City Oklahoma Fire Department was second and the Las Cruces Fire Department was third.
In the overall division, Midwest City earned first place, followed by Las Cruces and the New Mexico National Guard, 64th, CST.