Firefighters practice hazmat decontamination skills

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Some of Sumter's firefighters brushed up on how to handle hazardous material decontamination during training sessions at Thomas Sumter Fire Station last week.

When a hazardous material call is received, a crew from the station closest to the scene will respond and everyone at the Thomas Sumter station will respond with the decontamination trailer, said Capt. Kevin Ray of the Alice Drive station.

Each station has its own special operations, and one of Thomas Sumter station's special operations is hazardous material, or hazmat, decontamination, he said.

Lt. Nicky Hill of Thomas Sumter station said every firefighter is trained to deal with hazardous material calls when he or she leaves the academy but not all firefighters are trained technicians who can stop hazardous leaks.

Ray said firefighters have three main priorities when arriving at a scene, no matter the incident: life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation.

With a fire, you know the different elements that can sustain a fire and how to put out the flames, but if you don't know the details of a hazardous situation, you could die quickly, Hill said.

The priorities stay the same, but a more methodical approach is taken, he said.

You need to determine what the chemicals are, what resources you need and what resources you have, he said.

Firefighters carry a guide book listing all known chemicals in the United States and use it to determine how hazardous the chemical can be, how to deal with it and how far to evacuate civilians based on the size of the spill.

Hill said firefighters also have equipment and contacts that can provide more information about how to handle each situation.

Based on the kind of hazardous material, firefighters will wear one of two protective suits.

Materials with an inhalation hazard require a suit that leaves the face and hands exposed while materials that pose an absorption hazard require a full-body suit that leaves nothing exposed, Hill said.

After determining the hazardous materials and getting prepared, firefighters will locate the contaminated zone and set up a cleaning zone at a safe distance away.

Once the zones are secured, firefighters isolate contaminated individuals and evacuate everyone from the area, Ray said. Life safety, for civilians and firefighters, is the No. 1 priority, he said.

Firefighters will set up individual showers or a tent depending on how many people need to be decontaminated. Inside the tent, firefighters can set up a conveyor system for people who are unable to walk.

The shower and tent will sit on top of a tarp that will catch all of the chemicals that have been washed off.

Hill said removing a person's clothes could remove 85 to 90 percent of the contaminant before the person is washed.

Modesty is gone during decontamination but in a dangerous situation it shouldn't matter, he said.

Hill said water is the main thing that is used to clean people who have been contaminated, but there are special solutions that can be used for more dangerous material. The cleaning process takes about 3 minutes, he said.

After people have been rinsed, scrubbed and rinsed again, they are checked with pH paper or a device that can detect hazardous materials to make sure they are clean, Hill said.

During the decontamination process, firefighters will also check each other's vitals to make sure each person is healthy enough to continue working the scene.

Hill said a cleanup crew will be called in to remove the tarp and other items that come into contact with the hazardous chemicals after the people have been decontaminated and the spill has been contained.

After human life has been protected, firefighters will focus on stopping the hazard from spreading any farther, Ray said.

Then, a cleanup team, sometimes employed by the product manufacturer, will arrive to remove the materials from the environment, he said.