Hazmat, WMD team ready to respond to range of emergencies

QUEENSBURY The group of Warren County residents may work under a title that refers to weapons of mass destruction, but their duties arent confined to respond to an incident involving a nuclear explosives or bioterrorism. In accordance with federal and state mandate, Warren County is prepared for a wide range of chemical spills and other situations involving hazardous materials. The Warren County Hazmat and Weapons of Mass Destruction Team is considered one of the best-trained and equipped units of its kind in the state, according to county Fire Coordinator Marv Lemery. In an interview this week, he called the team a big player statewide in specialized emergency response. The amount of manpower, the level of training and the technology associated with the countys Hazmat-WMD team make it one of the finest in the state, he said. The team is funded by federal and state grants,Lemery said. Although a hazmat response team was in existence prior to the infamous September 11 attacks, a well-funded, well-equipped and well-trained unit was only a dream prior to that year, he said. We have received about $1 million from the feds and the state to purchase the necessary equipment and train our guys, Lemery said. At the county level, the program consumes very little if any local tax dollars, he said. After the attacks, governmental awareness increased significantly, he said. The new Federal Department of Homeland Security appropriated a lot of money and it filtered down to the counties through the state. Lemery said that inter-county reciprocal response is a large part of the statewide program. The unit has responded to calls in Washington, Essex and Franklin counties, he said. He said the nationwide program generally takes a regional approach. Periodical training drills are held in counties all over the region. The unit is composed of the entire Glens Falls Fire Department, which has 38 firefighters and line officers. Typical unit activation has consisted of chemical spills throughout the region. However, in the event of a terrorist attack, foreign or domestic, the unit would respond prior to state and federal response, he said. When a call comes in, we have to send out the fire unit on duty and re-staff the fire department with officiating-duty firemen, he said. Everyone is trained to an entry level status or better- many have advanced training. The unit purchased a Hazmat trailer in 2002 and bought a specially equipped tow vehicle in 2005, Lemery said. The hazmat trailer has chemical detection systems which can identify nerve agents and other hazardous materials. County Assistant Fire Coordinator and Glens Falls Fireman James Schremel has head up the day-to-day operation of the unit since its inception in 2001. Our first priority upon arriving at an event is to assess the situation, Schremel said on Wednesday. Schremel explained that there are two categories applied to situations involving hazardous materials. The local response category is comprised of situations where local municipal volunteer fire departments are prepared to handle the situation. The county response team may supply equipment to the local departments if it is required. At present five area departments have completed a state technical decontamination course, he said. We are trying to train as many of the volunteer companies with the basics as we can so they will be ready for an event, Schremel said. They would most likely be the first responders on a scene. The second category is applied to situations where county involvement is required. At the scene, the unit would mitigate the situation to their best abilities and take samples of any unknown substances, Schremel said. According to Schremel, the most common event responded to is unknown white powder, with the potential for Anthrax exposure always in the back of unit members minds. Any immediate cost accrued by the county during a Hazmat team response, for example gasoline or manpower, are billed to the spiller Schremel said. The program is always preparing for new possibilities, he said. We are still evolving in our capabilities, Schremel said. The current program works pretty well.

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