Teams fight Hazmat challenges

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It’s all make-believe, but firefighters at LANL’s Hazmat Challenge learn to handle major emergencies

By Kirsten Laskey

The trailer smelled like danger.

The air buzzed with an ominous droning and telltale signs that foul play was afoot were scattered everywhere.

Snapshots of birds with blistered-looking beaks were tacked to the walls, a text book about influenza was open on a table and in a back room plastic cages held chickens and ducks.

The scenario described a disgruntled university student diabolically working on a scheme to spread a disease through poultry. It was a group of firefighters’ job to respond to this scene.

So after hearing the situation, the group ventured to the trailer.

It was just one exercise during the 14th annual Hazmat Challenge Wednesday at TA-49 at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Elsewhere, firefighters dealt with leaking gasoline tankers, victims caught in a smoke-filled structure and radioactive items concealed in packages on a delivery truck. The challenge was kicked off with an orientation Tuesday before the exercises Wednesday. The challenges will continue today and “fun and games” will be Friday.

The Hazmat Challenge, which is sponsored by Los Alamos National Laboratory, gathered 12 teams from across the U.S. Firefighters from as far as Oklahoma and Texas participated in this year’s challenge.

The Los Alamos Fire Department also sent a team.

Each team competed in eight scenarios, said Jeff Dare of emergency response with LANL said. He added that teams have 20 minutes to complete each challenge.

Points are given on completing tasks as well as for time. Points are deducted for being unsafe “to teach people to respond correctly and safely,” Dare said.

Other agencies that were involved in the program included the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Region Six of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dare explained work on the different challenges began with a planning meeting in the spring. Suggestions are received and people are assigned to different exercises.

Additionally, new exercises are created.

He said different scenarios are swapped out but some, such as the overturned tanker, appear each year.

Bill Flor of emergency operations with LANL noted that there are no real hazards on the site. It’s all compressed air and water.

What is being emphasized, he added, is learning skills and exchanging information with other departments.

Through Wednesday’s schedule, Flor said participants were “enjoying what they’re doing. They’re learning things. The exchange is a good exchange.”

For instance, Flor said Pantex Fire Department representatives said they had never dealt with chemical hazards on a train car. Through this year’s exercise featuring a leaking train car, they know what to do.

“It’s a fun learning experience – a great refresher,”  said Capt. John Pairett of LAFD.

The biggest thing, Pairett added, is training and teamwork.

Los Alamos firefighter Dan Sholder said, can learn from other departments as well. “The other departments share their experience (so) we can take that back, too,” he said.