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Catawba County's Hazardous Materials Response Team responded Friday to a reported chemical release at a Newton facility.
The call was part of a training drill, which was designed to test the team's response capabilities during a major chemical release or spill.
"You're always going to have some issues in training," said Ryan Monteith, HAZMAT coordinator for the Catawba County Fire and Rescue Division. "That's the goal of the drill. We're trying to get better."
HAZMAT members received an imaginary scenario in which a cylinder of chlorine was leaking at the Newton Water Treatment Plant. In the scenario, one employee at the facility was unaccounted for and presumed still inside the building with the leaking cylinder.
Two evaluators attended Friday's drill to watch as members from the team responded to the "chlorine spill" at the treatment facility. The evaluators took notes throughout the drill and will compile their findings for a later presentation to HAZMAT members on their overall response to the incident.
The first step to control the chemical release was to establish what direction the wind was blowing. Crew members set up a location across N.C. 10 from the water plant to test the wind direction and gauge their surroundings.
"It may seem like it takes a long time to get set up, but that's the nature of it," Monteith said. "HAZMAT's not one of those things you can rush into and get good results."
HAZMAT teams are required to establish command a certain distance from the reported spill based on what chemical is being released into the environment.
According to the Center for Disease Control, exposure to chlorine gas, which is a greenish color, can result in difficulty breathing, fluid in the lungs, nausea and death.
"Chlorine is one of those chemicals that be very dangerous," Monteith said. "As long as the cards play out right, we can control a situation before anyone gets hurt."
Teams worked in pairs to repair the imaginary leak in a cylinder of chlorine stored at the Water Treatment Plant. Chlorine is used at the facility to clean and sterilize the city's drinking water.
Water Treatment Plant supervisor Tim Abernethy watched as men put a clamp on the leak to stop chlorine from escaping into the environment.
"It's possible, yes, but it's very, very, very unlikely," Abernethy said of the imaginary spill.
Chlorine at the facility is stored in tanks made from inch-and-a-half steel, protecting the tanks from possible leaks.
To protect crew members from possible chemical exposure, the men wore heavy suits, masks, boots and air tanks. AIr captured, within the suits, fogs the men's masks, forcing them to stop regularly and wipe the condensation from the masks so they could see to function.
A pair of HAZMAT members recovered a "victim" in the building and dragged the victim to safety. After each member left the contaminated building, he walked through a decontamination shower, which is designed to remove all residual traces of the chemical from the suit.
"It's very hot in there," said HAZMAT team member Troy Scott. "You're sweating so much your mask gets fogged up. It's very hard to see, and it's very hard to maneuver."
One HAZMAT member was forced to stop during the drill after becoming overheated. He was treated by emergency personnel on the scene, but he eventually rejoined the drill.
The drill lasted about three hours, and the team met for a "hot wash" after the drill to discuss the pros and cons of their performance. The evaluators were also present at the hot wash to listen and respond to the team's comments.
"It's basically an open forum," Monteith said. "Nobody wanted this drill to go perfect. Just like I expected, there were things we excelled at and things we needed to work on."
Catawba County's HAZMAT team responds to about 60 chemical spills and releases a year. Most responses involve motor vehicle accidents and the subsequent release of petroleum-based products, such as diesel fuel or hydraulic fluid. The team also prepares for more serious incidents, such as the release of deadly gases at treatment facilities, hospitals or nuclear plants.
Members attend training sessions monthly to meet exercise and other standards for HAZMAT crews.
Catawba County's HAZMAT response was established in 2005 and is available county wide 24 hours a day, seven days a week.