By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
LONDONDERRY -- Four firefighters in protective hazmat gear and orange galoshes amble down the narrow wooden staircase into the dimly lighted basement of an abandoned furniture store looking for trouble.
As they communicate at the scene of a mock chemical spill through air-purifying respirators, they sound like a quartet of Darth Vaders, every breath audible above the din of radio transmissions to command central.
“Got any readings?” prompts one of their guides, a New York City firefighter who is part of the training team. “Got any pH paper?” he adds, perhaps leading the four hazmat trainees to the next logical step in their investigation of the scene.
Friday’s two-part training exercise, staged at an empty business on Rockingham Road, was the final test for 27 firefighters from across the state hoping to pass an 80-hour hazmat tech course, earning them a certificate through the Southeastern New Hampshire Mutual Aid Hazmat Team.
“The scenario for the first test was that there was a terror alert affecting all military institutions, including a recruiting office at a strip mall in Londonderry. Inside, we had a mannequin in the corner of a smoke-filled room, and they had 1½ minutes to make the rescue,” explained Londonderry Fire Capt. Jim Roger, who also is in charge of training as hazmat technical team leader.
“You can see here we tried to produce conditions that might be present in such a scenario. They had radiological readings they had to transmit back to incident command. In this case, it was UN 2977 — that’s uranium hexachloride,” said Roger. “They knew they only had a certain amount of time to find and save the victim before he would expire from the chemicals. They made the rescue in 10 seconds.”
The course, made possible through the International Association of Firefighters and other federally funded Homeland Security grants, would otherwise not be affordable, said Roger.
“We live in a different world than we used to. Nowadays, every frontline firefighter and emergency responder should have this training to make us better prepared, no matter what the situation,” Roger said. If you doubt the relevance of a well-prepared hazmat force, check out the scrolling list of national disasters posted at hazmat.globalincidentmap.com, where you can see in real time just how often teams of hazmat specialists are being called on across the country to mitigate anything from industrial- sized sour milk spills to gas main ruptures, bomb threats and plant explosions.
Ever since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when America learned that terror alerts come in a range of colors and that those colors can change without warning, local fire departments have worked to create regional response teams. In New Hampshire, the Regional Emergency Planning Commission, under the direction of James Stone, oversees the coalition of hazmat response teams, which collectively have $725,000 worth of emergency equipment at their disposal.
Stone said the REPC, funded cooperatively by the 15 sending communities, has been activated 17 times so far this year, mostly for low-level hazards.
He said the 27 firefighters participating in last week’s training — seven from Londonderry, six from Derry, six from Auburn, three from Windham, and one each from Salem, Manchester, Hooksett and Pelham — spent most of their time preparing in theory for the final two training days, which were spent on “practical evolutions,” explained Stone.
One scenario involved a call concerning some children who’d gotten into an abandoned factory and fooled around with chemicals that had not yet been removed from the plant, creating a deadly cocktail of circumstances, including a victim in need of rescue.
“It’s comprehensive, beginning with set-up, laying out tarps and setting up equipment, and then going over the different kinds of suits they might be using, each with a different level of protection — all the way to how they put everything back together,” said Stone, observing a dozen trainees trying to deflate an inflatable decontamination hut.
“They forgot to use the vacuum to suck out the air. It makes the rolling that much easier,” said Stone, just out of earshot of the students, who finally realized why the hut was not deflating properly.
Although trainees are eligible to apply for a spot on the regional hazmat team, most will apply their training as needed to their own fire departments.
One of the trainees, Derry Firefighter Dave Deacon, said he was taking the course not only because it’s informational but also because it’s a prerequisite for taking the lieutenant exam. He said having some hands-on training in a nonemergency situation helps to reinforce what to do in an actual emergency.
“One of the training sessions involved different stations that were set up, and we had a 1-ton storage tank that was hooked up to a hose to simulate a hazardous product escaping. To walk into that environment while the product is hitting you in the face, and you’re trying to see what’s going on and what needs to be done, is more challenging than I thought it would be,” said Deacon.
This type of training is ideal for firefighters in Southern New Hampshire, given the number of daily truckloads of chemicals moving through the state to supply industry.
“Londonderry has a lot of industry, and it includes the airport, which also is an industrial hub,” said Roger.
“On the first day of class last week, we asked how many had been to a hazmat incident, and only half of the class raised their hands. They said, ‘Hey, we’re just firefighters.’ But that’s where we had to tell them to think again,” said Roger. “Every structure fire is a potential hazmat incident because of the materialsburning. ...That’swhy this training is so valuable.”