Marshall and Saline County departments combine for emergency HAZMAT response training exercise

Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Emergency responders remove the second and final "victim" of an ammonia leak simulation during an emergency HAZMAT response exercise at the ConAgra plant Wednesday, Oct. 14. (Arron Hustead/Democrat-News)

A three-site emergency response and decontamination drill took place in Marshall Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 14.

The training exercise brought together representatives of the Saline County Emergency Response Department, Saline Medical Reserve Corps, Marshall Fire Department, Marshall Police Department, Fitzgibbon Hospital, Cargill, ConAgra Foods and Industrial Consultants. Participants from the various agencies were able to gain experience coordinating and working together in the event of a large scale anhydrous ammonia leak.

Emergency personnel responded to simultaneous situations at the ConAgra and Cargill facilities. Responders dressed in blue HAZMAT suits entered the facilities and evacuated the personnel exposed to the leaks in order to decontaminate them. The team of responders then re-entered the facilities to close off the leak.

Members of the Marshall Fire Department and Cargill HAZMAT response team prepare their HAZMAT suits and equipment to perform the simulated rescue Wednesday, Oct. 14. (Lucas Johnson/Democrat-News)

On site at Cargill were the MFD, members of the SMRC, and Cargill staff, which included their own HAZMAT response team who accompanied firefighters to the area of the spill. Also on site was Emergency Management Director Emmit Williams, who explained the details of the exercise as it corresponded with the other drill at ConAgra.

"OSCHA requires the plants to go through them and each plant (has to conduct this type of training) once a year minimum," Williams said. "So, we're doing them together so we can get them out of the way at one time."

Williams said such wide-scale training will provide invaluable feedback as to how response time is affected by an increased workload for emergency responders. He explained in events such as this scenario, emergency responders can be called in from other Saline County towns. At Cargill's fall 2014 training, almost all the fire departments from the county were present to participate in the training.

"Basically we had the whole county in here," Williams said, "And as a result we were able to document some issues involving travel getting here ... we were able to get a pretty good feel of what it takes to get people in for backup."

With the numerous agencies involved, an outside consulting company was contacted to provide feedback on how the participants reacted and to critique their procedures in order to better evaluate the efficiency of their response. Jim Leach, an evaluator with Industrial Consultants, said he looks for several details that will give him and those involved in the scenario valuable information to build upon the response plan in place.

"As far as the response, this particular facility relies a lot on the fire department, so we're evaluating their ability to work together as responders," Leach said. "Because you've got professional responders with plant responders coming together."

Leach further explained the plant HAZMAT team has been trained to the same level of the NFDA 472 Competency for firefighters, and it's a matter of getting the two working together efficiently. He said that community response to scenarios like this will be focused upon heavily as well.

"Right now, with this drill that were doing here, in connection with the drill in town, we're challenging the community's response," Leach said. "So we're trying to see, is the community ready for this multi-type scenario?"

Leach said he looks for several aspects of preparedness from the community, such as resource management, ability to obtain the resources needed to address such emergencies, mass casualty preparedness, evacuation plans and other preparations.

Marshall Fire Chief Tony Day, Police Sgt. Roger Gibson and ConAgra safety officials monitor the situation from the command center set up outside the plant during an emergency HAZMAT response exercise Wednesday, Oct. 14. (Arron Hustead/Democrat-News)

MFD Chief Tony Day, along with MPD Sgt. Roger Gibson and ConAgra safety personnel monitored the situation and the wind direction at the ConAgra plant from a command post outside the facility. The weather conditions were monitored to help emergency personnel determine what evacuation procedures would be required. Everyone agreed that the exercise, which lasted approximately 30 minutes, was successful at that location.

"If something like this happens, it's going to be chaotic, but being as how we got to work together now, it won't be as chaotic," Day said.

Gibson said the exercise gave the departments valuable experience coordinating their efforts as well as the various communication channels.

"These opportunities are great because we all get to work together and get familiar," Gibson said.

Three "victims" of the leaks, two from the ConAgra plant and one from Cargill, were transported by private vehicles to Fitzgibbon Hospital where hospital staff and members of the SMRC were standing by to practice decontamination procedures. Hospital Public Relations Coordinator Richard DeFord said the individuals arriving by private vehicle in the event of a leak was a likely scenario as exposed individuals might not wait around for emergency responders before rushing to the hospital.

A decontamination tent was set up outside the emergency wing of the hospital. DeFord said the staff and SMRC were able to have the tend set up in approximately five minutes.

"By the time they've got the person loaded, we're set up here, ready to go," DeFord said.

Decontamination personnel had to undergo two check-ups while getting suited up in their containment suits where their blood pressure, pulse and O2 levels were monitored. Individuals were limited to no more than 30 minutes inside the decontamination suit at a time. They were also given a final check-up after the procedure was complete as they were removing the suits.

Members of the Saline Medical Reserve Corps and Fitzgibbon Hospital staff load an "incapacitated victim" onto a back board in preparations for taking him through a decontamination shower at the hospital campus during an emergency HAZMAT response training exercise Wednesday, Oct. 14. (Photo contributed by Richard DeFord)

The "victims" of the leaks were taken through a decontamination shower set up inside the tent and from there entered into the hospital through the dedicated decontamination wing. DeFord said it was great that the hospital has the dedicated entrance now because previously victims exposed to ammonia would enter into the emergency room through the regular entrance and potentially create second-hand exposure to the ammonia fumes among other patients awaiting treatment.

Of the three, one "victim" was ambulatory and was walked through the decontamination shower inside the tent. The other two were incapacitated, and one had to be placed on a backboard before he could be decontaminated.

As with any chemical, specific equipment is required to protect the responders performing the extraction, and dealing with anhydrous ammonia can become increasingly dangerous. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, anhydrous ammonia is a pungent gas with suffocating fumes. Williams said the chemical itself searches for sources of water. For human beings, whose body is made up of approximately 70 percent water, anhydrous ammonia is particularly dangerous to the eyes, mouth and respiratory system. Also being that anhydrous is stored in it's liquid form at -28 degrees fahrenheit, the chemical begins to boil as soon as it comes in contact with air, posing severe burn risks.

Williams noted the chemical is increasingly dangerous in higher concentrations, giving the example that at 300 parts per million, serious damages could occur.

"It would be like having a drop of oil in a gallon bucket of water," Williams said. "I mean its a very minute amount, but anhydrous, because of its nature, expands 850 times."

Williams said a small drop in the atmosphere would create an affected radius of approximately three feet in diameter, and in the event of an industrial scale spill such as the kind simulated, thousands of pounds spilled could potentially be lost and the affected area could reach miles away if wind conditions were right.

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