Local firefighters deal with all sorts of hazardous materials

ADDISON COUNTY — The modern world is filled with technological and scientific advancements that make our lives easier, but the way we live now also can present some underlying dangers. We make use of potentially hazardous materials in just about every aspect of modern life. These materials are taken for granted when everything is operating smoothly, but when things go wrong we rely on trained specialists who are able to deal with these extremely dangerous products.
The first line of defense is your local fire department.
The stereotype of a hazardous materials incident may be a wrecked tanker leaking some kind of dangerous chemical product, but the reality is that hazardous materials are often much, much closer to home — literally.
“Maybe you’re a contractor. Maybe you have acids stored on your property for cleaning purposes. Maybe you’ve got to clean concrete as part of your job, you’re in the concrete business. It’s amazing the hazardous materials you’ll find in your own home,” said Bristol Fire Chief Brett LaRose.
Even your everyday cleaning products are hazardous materials and can create very serious health problems as soon as they are improperly removed from the appropriate container.
Fire departments respond to all sorts of motor vehicle crashes, in most cases not to extinguish fires or extract people from half-crushed cars, but to clean up spilled liquids.
In practice, the stereotypical situation of the wrecked tanker is actually less dangerous than one might expect precisely because transportation of hazardous materials at that scale has to be reported and the tanker itself must be placarded with vital information about the on-board materials.
The real danger often comes from mixed-load transports that haven’t crossed the content threshold for reporting what sorts of hazardous materials they’re carrying on-board. This means that the firefighters responding to the incident are going in without much information and have to rely upon their training to determine how to proceed.
“One of the first resources at our disposal as responders is the Emergency Response Guidebook,” said LaRose. “We need it every time we go to a hazardous materials incident. It tells us what we’re dealing with and gives us our initial guidelines and steps to take.”
Of course, spills or leaks of hazardous materials can often become more than the local fire departments are equipped to handle alone. That’s why they work in concert with state authorities to respond to hazardous materials incidents, according to Todd Cosgrove, chief of the Vermont Hazardous Materials Response Team, or VHMRT.
“The VHMRT was created in 1994 to assist all fire departments in Vermont with managing hazardous materials incidents,” said Cosgrove.
“The purpose for the team’s creation was and remains to work with the fire chiefs before, during and after hazardous materials events in their municipalities,” he continued. “By having VHMRT technicians located across the entire state supported with three VHMRT response vehicles, the VHMRT endeavors to have highly trained and equipped personnel on scene quickly when requested by the incident commander.”
Hazardous materials incidents can be incredibly dangerous to the public, but also to the firefighters tasked with responding to them.
“This is where our training comes into play,” said LaRose. “We have to make very difficult decisions sometimes. If we just go running in with no protective gear on, we’ve just made the situation worse. We’re no good to anybody if we can’t perform our duties.”
“One of the first things they teach you when you go to your Firefighter 1 class is protect life, property and the environment, in that order, obviously,” said LaRose. “You’ve got to protect yourself first and foremost with your protective equipment. We want to protect people’s property from any harmful exposures. Then, of course, we want to protect the environment.”

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