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Testing Trimble's emergency preparedness

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Local, regional officials participate in mock chlorine spill exercise

By Phyllis McLaughlin

It was only a test, but to a casual onlooker it could have seemed like the real thing.

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Emergency responders from throughout Trimble County were called out about 9 a.m. Saturday to a mock hazardous materials training drill at the Bray Ridge water pumping station, owned and operated by the Trimble County Water District.

Members of both Milton and Bedford volunteer fire departments were on scene, along with the Trimble County Emergency Search Unit and the Oldham County Hazardous Materials Response Team based at the South Oldham Fire Department, and the North Oldham Technical Rescue team.

“It’s a pretty good sized exercise for Trimble County,” said John Bastin, the emergency response manager for District 5 of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management. “They’ve put a lot of effort into it. We want to be ready, so when the real thing happens, we know what to do.”

The main command post for the exercise was set up near where Gills Ridge Road forks off of Bray Ridge Road, about a half-mile from the pumping station. There,  individual department leaders were briefed about the situation – a leak in one of the 150-pound chlorine tanks at the pumping station – by Trimble Emergency Management Director Ronnie McCane.

The leak was detected by a computer at the pumping station, which set off an audible alarm there and also sent electronic messages to water district officials.

From the command post, personnel were dispatched to homes in the area to check  on and alert residents to the spill. In a real emergency, the residents would have been told to evacuate or to shelter in place.

The main contingent of responders, however, advanced from the “cold” zone – the command post – to the “warm” zone, an area close enough to the leak site that protective clothing would be required. Using air detectors, responders determined the “hot” zone, or the area that would have deadly amounts of chlorine present.

Once the perimeters were established, teams began setting up equipment. Members of the Bedford Volunteer Fire and Rescue hazmat team helped assemble the departments decontamination unit in which responders coming from the hot zone would be scrubbed and showered down to remove residual chlorine from their protective suits.

James Snell and Michael Sparkman were dressed in full protective gear and were in charge of the “decon” duties.

In the meantime, two teams from Oldham County were donning their training suits – similar but less expensive versions of full hazmat protective gear. The real gear costs about $800 per suit, Bastin said, adding that if this were a real chemical spill, the suit would have to be disposed of once the mission was completed.

The suits appear to be made of a plastic tarp-like material, with clear plastic around the face and plenty of room in back for an airpack. Duct tape was used to secure the suits around the tops of each boot and seal along the zipper, to prevent any chemicals from getting inside.

Once they were suited up, it was time to take their equipment to the pump station, including a gurney in case a victim would be found at or near the pumping station.

Their actions were observed and noted by Bennie Robinson, the state fire marshal for this region.

Armed with keys obtained from water district manager Tom McBride, the two men unlocked the gate and began assessing the building to find entrances and the location of the chlorine tanks.

The team opened the pump room, where the alarm was sounding. A quick look determined no one was inside.

They then went to the other side of the building where the tanks are stored. Upon opening that door, they found a “victim” lying on the floor wearing a respirator.

Robinson watched with approval as the men retrieved the victim – a homemade dummy – and placed him on the gurney. But, he made a quick note of the fact that the men didn’t properly assess the victim to see if he was alive.

“Shoot,” Robinson said, as he wrote in his book.

In reality, he said, “this guy would be DRT – Dead Right There.”

Even with the respirator, without the protective suit the victim likely would have succumbed to the poisonous gas by the time help could get to him.

Robinson noted that the crew should have had bolt cutters among their equipment, in case the keys didn’t open the gate. He said in a real emergency, the team also would have gone to the house across the road – closest to the spill – to make sure everyone there was OK before entering the pump station.

Followed by a rainbow pack of Labrador retrievers – one yellow, one chocolate and one black, showing no ill effects from the “spill” – the response team headed back toward the warm zone with the victim on the gurney.

Robinson noted one more mistake – Team B still wasn’t suited up yet. He said that team should have been suited up and met Team A halfway to the warm zone to take over inspection of the pump station.

Robinson did praise the Trimble County Water District for its efforts to ensure the water system is operating efficiently.

“This water district is top notch,” he said, praising the county’s high-tech equipment and alarm system, as well as special “smartphones” that district officials keep with them that will alert them immediately if something goes wrong.

Robinson said there are very few districts in counties the size of Trimble that have such equipment.

McCane said he was pleased with the exercise, overall. “There were a few errors, but nothing major,” he said. “The state evaluator said it was a good exercise.”

One main thing, he said, that came from the training was an agreement that water district officials will train local firefighters to use “A kits,” which are used to stop leaks in cylinders.

Once in, McCane said, they realized “no one knew how to use the kits except the water company.”

Members of the various departments involved also indicated the training was a success. “They said they want to do it again next year,” McCane said.

In an actual emergency, though, McCane said the Bedford fire department has all the equipment to respond to a chlorine leak. He said the department is outfitted with Class B hazmat suits, a step down from the Class A suits Oldham has, which are required for far more dangerous chemicals.

He said the county also needs hazmat technicians who are state trained, which would require a 40-hour course that would take a full week to complete.