Monday, November 19, 2001

Hazmat training reveals dangers

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        EVENDALE — Inside a mock metallurgical lab, spilled chemicals are mixing in a dark, smoke-filled room, forming a cloud of cyanide gas.

        Outside, an unknown chemical is leaking into a sewer from a trailer in the parking lot. Then, an hour later, reports come in about an ominous-looking bag of powder lying on nearby railroad tracks.

        Clad in electric blue and screaming yellow “moon suits,” the first of four hazardous materials teams-in-training tromps into the hot zone. It looks for the injured and tries to eliminate the danger.

        But confusion sets in almost immediately. The incident commander can't understand the team's garbled radio communications. An alarm sounds as a team member runs low on air. A member of a second team collapses, needing emergency rescue.

        In the middle of all this, the media show up.

        Welcome to the “real world” of hazardous-materials incident response, a training program at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College that is the largest of its kind in the Tristate.

        During recent training, Jason Boyce, an ER nurse at Children's Hospital Medical Center, was incident commander.

        “It's an eye-opener in terms of what you can get into,” Mr. Boyce says. “In my realm, I have a lot of control. I had almost no control here.”

        Few realize how difficult a job it can be.

Snap decisions in stifling suit

        A class of 17 men and three women — firefighters, industrial workers and college students — recently learned firsthand what it's like to work in Level A hazmat suits, the most sophisticated chemical protective gear in the business.

        As incident commander, Mr. Boyce's job was to oversee four teams in Level A suits and a decontamination line of a dozen workers, responding to the hypothetical chemical spill at a metallurgical lab.

        Mr. Boyce and his team had many decisions to make, most of them on the fly.

        How many teams to send in? What suits should they wear and what monitors and tools will they need?

        Are there injured to be rescued? What chemicals are in the leaking containers and what hazards do they pose? How big an area should be evacuated? What will be needed to contain, neutralize and clean up the spill?

        Who will do the talking when the news media show up?

        Level A hazmat suits are completely vapor-proof, right down to their special seam-sealing zipper that alone costs several hundred dollars. If you don't wear an oxygen tank inside the suit, you suffocate in about six minutes.

        Inside the suit, it's hot and surprisingly noisy.

        The hiss of your own breathing through the air regulator and the crinkly roar that happens with every arm or leg movement in the tarplike material drowns out most other noise.

        Without a radio, which only some students were carrying inside their suits, talking to other people requires using hand signals or touching heads so the suit itself carries the sound waves.

        Once on, the suit is so bulky you can't see your feet. Wearing two sets of gloves — required for maximum protection — also makes it awkward to handle tools. Forget about picking small objects off the ground.

        Even walking across a parking lot, climbing steps or tightening a large bolt causes enough sweat and condensation to fog up the face plate.

        Small wonder that people who wear these suits for a living carry towels inside to wipe off their face plates.

        A person wearing a Level A suit has just a brief time to do his job.

        “For a 60-minute tank (of air), we plan on having 15 to 20 minutes of working time,” said Brian Canteel, program director for hazardous-materials training at Cincinnati State.

        The rest is spent just getting to the scene of the spill and coming back with enough air to go through a multistep decontamination scrub.

        The class had no trouble dealing with the simulated anthrax alert.

        The two-member team took just a few minutes to identify the potential biological hazard, then stow the powder bag in a “lab pack” designed to safely hold such hazards.

        Even though many responders have worn them, it turns out that Level A hazmat suits aren't really necessary to deal with anthrax. Dust — even deadly anthrax-laced dust — is no match for a Level A suit.

        “On some of these anthrax scares, I've wondered, too, why are they going in with Level A? With a Level A suit, you lose so much dexterity and vision,” Mr. Canteel said.

        Level A suits, with their high-tech materials, seamless construction and expensive vapor-lock zippers, are designed for more dangerous work, such as walking into a cloud of poison gas, he said.

        For anthrax, Level C protection usually is good enough, Mr. Canteel said. Level C calls for closer-fitting coveralls, with the gaps between the suit, gloves and boots taped up. And a person in Level C protection can get by with a gas mask filtering the outside air, instead of having to use an air tank.

        Hazardous-materials teams have more to worry about than just anthrax. More than 600 dangerous chemicals are commonly found in workplaces, from waste-water treatment plants to flavor-making companies.

Training can be unnerving

        So why would anybody want such a job? The answer: Somebody has to do it.

        Lt. Martin Rutland, 38, is a member of Cincinnati Fire Division Ladder Co. 14. His unit supports Squad 52, the division's special rescue and hazmat unit.

        Since Sept. 11, more firefighters are getting cross-training in hazmat situations.

        “I didn't plan to be doing this,” he said. “But I'd rather be informed and know exactly what to do than not.”

        Amanda Hoffbauer, 21, is studying environmental engineering at Cincinnati State. Experience in a Level A suit, she said, may help her land a job at a company that does toxic hazard testing or simply uses large amounts of chemicals.

        But even the training is unnerving, she said.

        During her first experience in a hazmat suit, a companion's low-air alarm sounded. After that, she said, it was hard to concentrate.

        “As soon as I heard it, I panicked a little bit,” Ms. Hoffbauer said.

        But the dangers involved and the skills required make hazmat work an exciting challenge, said Brandon Hudson, 25, a firefighter for the city of Hamilton.

        “I love this stuff,” he said.

Who gets hazmat training?

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