Training to handle hazards

April 08, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - There were at least a few people in Martinsburg who might not have been too pleased with Wednesday's warm temperatures.

Twenty-three firefighters from four different fire departments were drilling during the third day of a week-long course dealing with hazardous materials. Part of the course involved putting on protective suits, complete with a self-contained breathing apparatus, to test their coordination.

The firefighters wore the gear while performing drills that included sweeping up clumps of dirt, dribbling a basketball around small orange cones and screwing together pieces of pipe.


"These people will be soaking wet when they come out," said Dave Peterson, of Madison, Wis., one of the course's instructors.

Provided by International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) using a $50,000 EPA grant, the course is being held on the grounds of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, east of Martinsburg off W.Va. 9.

It culminates Friday with a test and a drill involving a hazardous materials spill. During that final drill, participants will have to rescue people and take them to an on-site decontamination center, said Donnie Grubb, assistant chief of the VA Center's fire department.

All 15 firefighters with the VAMC's fire department are taking the course, along with two firefighters from the Martinsburg Fire Department, two from the 167th Airlift Wing's fire department and four from the Mount Weather (Va.) Fire Department.

Grubb said training dealing with hazardous materials was provided nine years ago at the VAMC, but an update was needed given "everything that's going on in the world."

Although the VA has not had any incidents involving hazardous materials, firefighters there now will be re-certified annually.

This course is the first for many firefighters, he said.

Instructor Dave Donohue, who previously worked for the Palm Beach County (Fla.) Fire Department, said participants learn how to take offensive and defensive approaches when it comes to hazardous materials. They also will learn the related chemistry, how to perform air monitoring and how to choose which of the four levels of clothing is appropriate for a given situation.

That was one drill Wednesday.

In the VA Center's theater, firefighters learned how to put on a "fully-encapsulated" level A suit, which protects against vapors and liquids.

Putting on a suit proved to be no easy task.

The firefighters had to make sure all the valves were intact, the face shield was properly taped in place, no creases or tears were present anywhere and gloves and boots were attached to the cuff and airtight.

Instructor Joe Gorman, of Winchester, Va., warned them to empty their pockets of any items that could puncture a suit.

Three other firefighters worked in tandem to try to get their colleague's rubber boots on, and a laugh was shared when one firefighter started to walk out without having zipped up his suit.

New suits cost $1,500 to $2,000 and a self-contained breathing apparatus carries a $3,000 price tag, Donohue said.

"It can help save lives. That's why we do this training," Donohue said.

Grubb agreed.

"This is tremendous training for the guys. The biggest thing is it's going to make them safe," he said.

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