Members of the Calhoun County Hazmat team, an all-volunteer organization, gathered at the county’s Emergency Management headquarters for their first meeting and drills of the year.
“Work safer, work smarter,” Fran Byrd told the group in the parking lot as they practiced setting up and taking down a decontamination tent complete with propane-powered heater and water supply.
“It’s like a car wash for people,” said team commander Bob Heintzelman, an instructor at the Center for Domestic Preparedness with years of hazardous materials experience. The tent is used like an assembly-line shower to clean off any potentially hazardous materials on people who could be exposed to them at the scene of a spill or other incident.
One member jotted notes on a small pad as Byrd reminded the volunteers to keep power lines and water supplies as far apart as possible and to minimize the distance between the heater and the tent to keep warm air from cooling as it traveled through collapsible air ducts. Once the setup was complete, the volunteers worked as a unit to efficiently deflate, fold and store the tent.
Saturday’s drill was about proficiency, said Byrd, a founding member and former commander of the team. “When you have several people around who are or think they are contaminated, naturally they want to be treated as quickly as possible,” he said. “So we train to where we can quickly set the system up with everything that’s needed and there’s no lag in getting people treated.”
According to Heintzelman, the county’s team is the only unfunded all-volunteer response team in the state. Jonathan Gaddy, director of Calhoun County’s Emergency Management Agency, got his start as a member of the hazmat team while a student at Jacksonville State University. He said his four-person department relies heavily on volunteers such as the hazardous materials team as “boots on the ground” in emergency situations. Local first responders can call hazmat team volunteers to a scene through the EMA, and often, Gaddy said, “an average citizen may not know they’re dealing with a volunteers.”
While the team does receive the occasional grant, its only real funding comes from reimbursement for its expenses from parties responsible for hazardous materials spills, Byrd said.
Captain Claudia Davis said the team’s funds are supplemented by small fundraisers such as yard sales and selling concessions at the Jacksonville Christmas parade.
The expense of keeping an active hazardous materials team is something many local agencies can’t maintain.
Oxford Fire Chief Gary Sparks said his department has a great working relationship with the county’s hazardous materials team and relies on its members to respond to incidents in his jurisdiction. “It’s just one of the functions that not every department is going to have the hazmat equipment because it’s not something you use every day,” he said.
The Anniston Fire Department is the only other agency with a full hazardous materials team in the county. Representatives of the department were not available to speak about the team on Friday.
For Sparks, who has a major shipping route running through his city, these relationships are key.
“I-20 is our most dangerous place because you don’t know what’s in any of those tractor trailers until it happens,” he said. A pesticide-related wreck on the interstate in 1990 is what initially inspired Byrd and other to form the county’s team after it took state troopers hours to gather up a team and fly them to the site via helicopter. And the team’s most recent call involved cleaning up a diesel spill on the interstate on Dec. 17.
Diesel and other petroleum products are the most common types of cleanup undertaken by the team, which typically gets called out to an average of 10-12 incidents per year, Byrd said. The team has a full complement of about 20 members, many with backgrounds in hazardous materials as civilians or through the military, and all are on call 24 hours a day if they are in town, Heintzelman said.
Davis said new members have to undergo a background check and then be voted in by the entire membership of the team. In the six-month probationary period, new members must undergo a certain amount of basic training before becoming a full-fledged member.
Carol McCormick joined the team in 2001. Retired from the U.S. Army, she has experience with military programs involving biological weapons detection as well as chemical, explosive, radiological and nuclear materials.
“When the call comes in at 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning, the first thing I go is ‘Oh no, not again,’” she said, laughing. But at the same time, McCormick remembers she is responding to aid her own community, and the late-night calls are worth it, she said, “if I can make a difference, one person at a time and then with a team, as we continue to ensure that our community is safe from hazardous materials spills or whatever the incident might bring.”
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.