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Area firefighters conduct hazmat training

By Shavonne Walker

shavonne.walker@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — From a distance, the men and women wearing oversized and encapsulated suits in lime green and bright blue look as if they are preparing to board a spaceship. Instead, the group of 33 are firefighters who, by the end of this week, will have been training for two weeks to receive certification in handling hazardous materials.

The training has been at the Fire & Emergency Services Training Facility on the campus of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. It included hours about identifying chemicals, containing chemical spills and leaks, decontamination, and a simulated train derailment.

Last week, the firefighters spent hours in lectures in a classroom setting, complete with daily tests. This week, they have used the skills they learned in class to carry out hands-on scenarios. On Thursday, they will have a pass or fail drill.

Instructors with the Office of State Fire Marshal ran the scenarios. The office is a division of the N.C. Department of Insurance.

“This is the highest level of hazmat certification,” said Battalion Chief Jay Baker.

All area firefighters learn the basics about chemicals in rookie school, Baker said.

This certification will allow them to respond to a spill of any of more than 200 million chemicals, said firefighter Casey Stiller.

Baker said it’s been several years since Salisbury has hosted the certification training, but Salisbury firefighters have attended training in other counties.

Once the firefighters pass Thursday’s drill and complete all the classwork, they will receive hazmat technician certification. The participating firefighters are already members of the Rowan-Salisbury hazmat team.

Their job, said Battalion Chief David Morris, is to respond to industrial leaks and to prevent the release of hazardous materials.

“It’s all in an effort to protect citizens and the environment, to stop leaks from getting into public water systems,” Morris said.

The object, said firefighter Wesley Jackson, is to “remove the hazard, stop the flow and contain.”

Once firefighters learn the necessary skills, they would be able to respond to incidents such as in April 2015 on Bringle Ferry Road when a tanker overturned, spilling 8,000 gallons of flammable ethanol. The Rowan-Salisbury hazmat team responded to that spill.

The firefighters in training this week are not only from Salisbury, but Statesville, Kannapolis, High Point and Greensboro. But 14 of the 33 firefighters are from Salisbury.

Prior to a week of class lectures, the firefighters had to sort of return to college chemistry class to learn about the chemicals they could potentially be exposed to and learn how they should react.

Firefighter Brianna Mitschele said the training is all about working with chemicals and materials they could actually encounter. She said a number of trains pass through Rowan County carrying a multitude of chemicals.

She said it’s likely that a firefighter will respond to at least one hazmat spill in his career.

The firefighters said they will be given a scenario during Thursday’s drill that will test all the skills they’ve learned. The pass or fail aspect of the drill is real, Mitschele said. “If you drop your knee, then you automatically fail,” she said.

When a firefighter’s knee touches the ground, it’s a sign that he has potentially introduced hazardous chemicals inside the suit. In a real-life situation, a firefighter would never kneel down, the firefighters said.

“The city of Salisbury Fire Department is very proactive in training members to make sure we are prepared,” said firefighter Grayson Phillips.

“These are high-risk, low-frequency (scenarios)” said Jacob Thompson.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.

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