Firehouse News: Hazmat Call

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by Tom Loach

Both the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department and Western Albemarle Rescue Squad spend a considerable amount of time answering calls on Interstate 64. For the most part, these calls come under the category of car or truck accidents with the occasional vehicle fire.

One type of incident sends shivers down my spine and that’s when the dispatcher comes over the radio with a “hazmat” or hazardous material call. Maybe it’s the reality that this is the type of call that proves the adage what you can’t see can hurt you. I suspect most people have no idea just how much hazardous material travels down Interstate 64 every day and what the potential is for disastrous consequences should there be an accident with a release of toxic material.

Every firefighter gets a basic class on how to handle a hazmat call, but by the end of day what you realize is just how much you don’t know, rather than how much you just learned. This is one reason why we have specialized hazmat response units in both the city and county. The running joke in the fire service for handling a hazmat call is to put your arm out, stick your thumb up and if you can still see the hazmat material around your thumb you’re too close.

Each fire truck has a manual with the title “Emergency Response Guide” or ERG, which lists the types of hazardous materials and provides information on how to handle the situation. Unfortunately, you can’t use the manual until you get on scene and determine the type of material you’re dealing with—and to know what you’re dealing with you first have to get close enough to see the information placard on the side of the vehicle. Thankfully, hazmat calls are few and far between and when we do get one the hazardous materials we deal with are usually fluids such as oil, diesel fuel or gasoline that spill as the result of an accident. So when a call came in recently for a hazmat spill on 64, I didn’t think too much about the potential downside and jumped on the truck. For this trip, Nick Barrell would be in the officer seat and I was riding in my usual spot in the crew cab. Upon arrival on scene I saw a large semi trailer, but no signs of fluids spilled and figured this was one more false alarm.

Not till I jumped out of the truck did I realize how wrong I was. No sooner did my feet hit the ground than an overwhelming stench hit me like a punch in the gut. For a brief moment I thought I had made a horrible mistake by not having my air pack on my back ready for use. Then I noticed the driver was standing by the side of the truck and Nick, who was walking ahead of me, was still upright, so I figured maybe things weren’t so bad after all. I waited for a minute just to make sure the stink wasn’t something that was going to hurt me before moving forward. When I felt confident that my lunch would stay down, I walked up to find the truck was loaded with pigs.

I must have looked a little green around the gills because the truck driver laughed and asked me “What’s a matter, don’t you like the smell of country potpourri?”

I took just enough time to say no before putting some distance between me and the pigs. Once Nick determined there was no emergency, I thought it was time to head home. But the truck driver stopped us and said “I need help with the pigs.” It being a hot day and the fact that a tow truck was still some time off, the truck driver wanted us to hose down the pigs to keep them cool. So we pulled the hose off the truck and started spraying the pigs, who, from the sound of their squeals really liked the impromptu shower. Once the pigs seemed happy, we wrapped it up and started back to the fire house. This is one type of hazmat call you won’t find in the manual.