HAZMAT unit marks a decade of service

January 13, 1997


Staff Writer

The Washington County HAZMAT unit, which cleans up toxic spills and other environmentally dangerous situations, hardly could have gotten off to a more modest start.

In 1986, the Washington County Commissioners spent $2,500 for training for a group of volunteers. The first team operated out of a converted Ryder truck that had 70,000 miles on it.

A decade later, the unit has about 25 fully trained members, an operating budget of more than $35,000 and a state-of-the art HAZMAT truck. The 35-foot HAZMAT truck, which went into service in 1992, is stocked with a TV and VCR, a computer with modem, a copier machine, a radio, a filing cabinet and air-monitoring equipment.


And that's just the back of the truck.

Compartments along the sides are overflowing with a variety of safety Teflon suits, boots, gloves, containers, hoses, vests, air tanks and a generator that makes it self-sufficient.

As the HAZMAT unit heads into its second decade, it is fine-tuning its mission. A lot more than the equipment has changed since it was formed, officials say.

When Washington County's unit was founded, there were only two other HAZMAT units in Maryland and none in the Tri-State area, said John Bentley, deputy chief of the unit.

In its early days, Bentley said, the unit made runs as far west as Allegany County, Md., and into West Virginia and Pennsylvania. As units formed in other areas, the Washington County unit narrowed its scope. But the number of calls steadily increased, he said.

The name has even changed. Last year, it officially became the Washington County Emergency Services Office of the Specialty Team. The name change reflects new duties, including rescue missions in confined places, such as manholes or silos.

The beginning

A few months after the County Commissioners made the initial commitment to the unit in November 1996, Bentley said a tractor-trailer carrying chemicals overturned.

The Washington County unit was not yet fully trained or equipped, and the county had to wait for help from the next closest agency in Baltimore.

"That's the ball that really started it rolling," Bentley said.

Dick Roulette, who was a County Commissioner at the time, said it was not difficult forging a consensus. He said new state and federal regulations, and a core of motivated volunteers, made the decision to start the unit an easy one.

"It was pretty evident we did need a specialized unit to handle these hazardous materials," he said. "It was an evolution. It wasn't something that happened very quickly.

"These guys, they were kind of on their own, scraping things together, and they did a great job."

Boonsboro Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Oley Griffith, who is a HAZMAT volunteer as well, said fire companies used to either do the best they could or wait several hours for experts to arrive from far away.

"We weren't aware of all the dangers that were out there," he said.

The mission today

In 1996, the unit ran on 77 calls. Some were relatively minor jobs, such as making sure that discarded batteries were properly disposed of. Other calls were more serious, involving train derailments and chemical explosions.

Even as the unit has changed, in some ways it is the same as it was a decade ago. The top four officials have all been there from the first day. And everyone is a volunteer, Bentley said.

"The cost to the taxpayers is minimal - extremely minimal," he said.

And the payoff is large, he said.

In addition to saving lives and property, Bentley said the presence of a HAZMAT unit is a drawing card for businesses.

"They're well-trained," said Jay Grimes, president of the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association. "They're looked upon as one of the best in the country."

Bentley and others said environmental laws make it nearly impossible not to have a HAZMAT team nearby. Bentley pointed to paint, pesticides and a host of common products that have to be carefully handled.

"You can't just throw them in the local Dumpster," he said.

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