Richmond firefighters take the edge off hazardous materials

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Nine Richmond firefighters trained for a mass casualty drill involving hazardous materials Saturday morning. The two-hour instruction took place at Station 64, parallel to the railroad tracks off Carson Avenue where freight cars often park while transporting high-risk materials.

Training began in a classroom where HAZMAT specialists studied a slideshow and discussed how to transport a decontamination trailer to the scene of an accident. The long red trailer with the words “Decontamination Unit” written on its side housed an inflatable yellow tent where victims could take off their contaminated clothes, shower, put on clean garb and receive medical treatment. Battalion Chief Manly Moulton Jr., alluded to a bus or BART accident in which 20-30 passengers would have watery eyes and need such a decontamination tent.

Once outside, the firemen put into action what they had discussed to familiarize themselves with the apparatus that could save many lives. Cpt. Aaron Osorio, who led the facilitation, said the Richmond Fire Department does some sort of HAZMAT training every Saturday, and that roughly 75 percent of the department is trained in dealing with hazardous material rescues.

“There’s so much HAZMAT in the city it’s best to be prepared,” Cpt. Osorio said as he described why he got involved with handling such volatile and sometimes invisible materials. “It’s a real threat for us. The more I can be prepared and know, the more I can keep my crew safe and hopefully make the problems go away.”

“We understand Richmond is very diverse in industry and our role is to make sure we’re prepared for the ‘What if?'” engineer Rico Rincon said as he helped inflate the decontamination tent. “[Richmond] businesses that use certain types of chemicals are very good about keeping information sheets about what they use. People fear the unknown. The more information you can give people the more at ease they are about their realities.”

Not all hazardous material scenarios start with big business. Some start in neighborly backyards and garages. To highlight this point, Cpt. Angel Bobo, a member of the original 1991 HAZMAT team, recounted a story of a deceased UC Berkeley chemist who had chemicals in his garage that were hazardous. “His children didn’t know it until they cleaned out his garage,” he said. “So they called the fire department and [we found] they actually had some explosives. There was a high probability that if they tried to open it they would’ve detonated it.”

2012 Richmond Fire Academy graduate Mike Rodriguez said he hasn’t been on HAZMAT run yet but that he’s sure it’ll happen. “As firefighters we have to respond to any and every emergency,” he said as his unit stowed the decontamination tent back into the trailer. “And if a HAZMAT situation happens I want to be able to respond and help out.”

For any hazardous material incident call 911, including reporting unknown barrels or two-liter milk jugs left on the side of the road, Battalion Chief Moulton said.

For more information about where to take household hazardous waste, click here.

For more information about countywide hazardous materials and monitoring, click here.

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