More than 20 members of the Alice Fire Department had their hands full dealing with hazardous material simulations as they received hands-on and classroom training for HazMat Technician-level certification this week at the Alice Public Safety Training Center.
"When our guys finish the training, they will be nationally certified," AFD Chief Dean Van Nest said.
Van Nest said HazMat training is done in three levels: awareness, operations, and technician. He said with awareness, the firefighters are trained to recognize a hazardous material, or HazMat, situation. At the operations level, they are trained in isolating the area, but not in engaging in the incident.
"At the technician level, these skills actually allow us to get in to patch leaks and become engaged," he said. Van Nest said they decided to hold the training now after the purchase of HazMat equipment the department received from a Homeland Security grant.
"So now that we have the equipment, we're refreshing the skillsets to go with that," he said.
The training was conducted by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) Emergency Services Training Institute, which is provided free-of-cost to the department through the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM).
"Yes, it costs the city a little bit in overtime, but we get a return with 20 firefighters trained for HazMat conditions," Van Nest said. "That makes us a little bit more self-sufficient and we're capable to address such situations."
HazMat Training Specialist Elizabeth Morris with TEEX conducted the training, which consisted of 40 hours of both classroom and practical application training.
"To be a firefighter in the state of Texas, you have to have awareness and operations (training)," Morris said. "This training is considered the advanced level." Morris said without the support from TDEM, she would estimate the training would have cost up to $10,000 for the department.
"It's significant," she said. "But in the state of Texas, the Department of Emergency Management makes funds available."
Van Nest said while most people view a hazardous material situation as involving large tanker trucks or train wrecks, they can occur in any vehicle accident or house fire.
"You've heard us respond to natural gas leaks?" he asked. "That falls under HazMat, and to approach it, you've got to train. Otherwise, you get to sit back and watch it."
"Pretty much every situation, even a fire situation, is a HazMat situation," Morris said. "Even if you have a leak at the water plant, they use chlorine, so if there's a cylinder leaking, these guys would go."
On Thursday, firefighters worked in groups of two in a series of hands-on skills tests. During the tests, instructors observed as the firefighters identified equipment and performed safety checks before outfitting themselves, as well as how they approached several hazardous material scenarios, including repairing damaged containers and containing spills and leaks.
The final written exam was conducted Friday. Morris said while the certification does not expire, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards require HazMat responders to attend refresher training annually.
"So it's not the same course, the full thing, it's being updated on things that you would not do as part of your job," she said. "It's usually a minimum of eight hours, but we do have some clients that go as high as 30 to 40 hours."