Practice makes perfect

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By Tris DeRoma

At Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Tech Area 49 around this time of year, a lot of accidents tend to happen. Chemical spills, car accidents and hazardous waste cleanup are just part of the norm, and believe it or not, the lab is glad it happens. 


Why? Because it’s good practice, literally. Each year, around late July and early August, LANL’s emergency response team gets busy setting up various “situations” at the site: car accidents, chemical spills, buildings fitted out with illegal drug making facilities. 

Called the “Hazmat Challenge,” emergency crews from LANL, the Los Alamos Fire Department and first responders from all over the region come to the site to test their skills and compete with other teams.

None of the chemicals used are real, of course. Water in a leaking tanker t-boned by a pickup truck is a substitute for gasoline; light-blue rock candy becomes a substitute for crystal methamphetamine. 

However, everything else is real. From the vehicles used in the crash simulations down to the valve assemblies used on tankers and lab equipment, organizers of the event strive to get even the smallest detail right, as these crews will probably be encountering the very same situations in the course of their jobs. 

“The great thing about bringing all these teams from different places together is that we all deal with different things from day to day, so we learn from each other” said LANL’s Emergency Team Coordinator Jeff Dare. “A lot of the scenarios we’ve developed over the years have been taken from real-life situations that people share with us.” 

According to Dare, the competition is more than about scoring points, it’s about the training. 

“This is a training opportunity for our teams as well as for teams throughout the state and region to hone their skills,” he said. 

Started 17 years ago, the event started out as just a way for LANL’s and the Los Alamos hazmat and emergency response teams to keep current with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. One of the best ways they found to certify competency is by simulating real-world scenarios, Dare added.

“The great thing about this event is a lot of people learn by making mistakes, and here, you can make mistakes without any serious consequences,” Dare said.

The competition has other benefits, according to Dare. Economics and networking also play a part. 

“It’s also an opportunity for agencies in the state and the region to get to know each other,” Dare said. “Hazmat response can be pretty expensive and it takes a lot of people. If there’s a big event somewhere then most likely they are going to have to call in mutual aid. This is a great way for teams to get to know each other before an event, get to know their capabilities.” 

Judges, some from LANL, some from outside agencies volunteer every year to observe how each team does in a particular situation.

According to LANL Emergency Response Team Leader Michael Padilla, who was in charge of the “leaky tanker” scenario, each situation has a priority, too. 

“Environmental mitigation is really important here at LANL,” he said. “As a hazmat team, we’re real concerned about the leak, but first and foremost let’s mitigate the damage to the environment. Let’s do some damming and diking, let’s put some pools underneath. Let’s stop what’s happening, and then we’ll work on the leak. That’s what we’re pushing these guys to do.”

Other scenarios that day included safely dismantling an alcohol still and a makeshift lab in a garage-like structure.

Each year, LANL tries to build different details into the situations they encounter –– just to keep the returning teams on their toes.

“They plan situations that are as realistic as possible,” said LANL spokesperson Steve Sandoval. “But for the teams that have been out here for two or three years, they are going to add some variety and learn something new. It’s all about learning, expanding their skillset, learning how to respond to an actual emergency back in their hometown.”

On Friday, the competitors wrapped things up with an obstacle course, a breakfast and awards show.

The Las Cruces Fire Department was tops in the technical events category followed by Edmond,Okla., and Sandia National Laboratory. In the Overall competition, Edmond was first followed by Santa Fe Fire Department and Las Cruces and Los Alamos tied for third. Clovis captured the sportsmanship award.