HERMISTON — Test tubes and dangerous spills took center stage at the Umatilla County Fire District Training building Thursday, when the Hermiston Hazardous Materials Response Team ran several drill scenarios.
For the first time in about a decade, the National Guard’s 102nd Civil Support Team — based in Salem — were in town to host the drills and provide training to Hermiston HazMat.
“Our hazmat team tried to get drills (with the 102nd CST) in the past, and it’s been a logistical issue,” said Lt. Matt Fisher of the Umatilla County Fire District, who organized the drills. “They have a lot of other obligations.”
The role of the 102nd CST, according to the Oregon Military Department, is to detect, analyze and contain nuclear, biological and chemical incidents in the state. Each responder must undergo 800 hours of training.
Of the 13 HazMat teams that make up the Regional Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Teams (RHMERT) in Oregon, Hermiston’s addresses emergencies all across Northeast Oregon. If the team requires extra help or more specified technology, the 102nd CST would come from Salem to help.
“The drills the 102nd CST put on are second to none,” said Fisher. “(They are) as realistic as we can come up with.”
Much of the CST’s work involves responding to reports of clandestine labs producing narcotics or methamphetamine around Oregon. Their specialized mobile lab has the ability to identify a diverse variety of hazardous materials, from drugs to explosives.
Drills like Thursday’s are important opportunities for the CST to identify the limitations and specific methods of HazMat teams across Oregon, according to Bernabo. This way, when they respond to a crisis with another team, they can tailor the response to the specific area.
It’s also an opportunity for the teams like Hermiston HazMat to become acquainted with newer HazMat technologies. A robot used to assess scenes before entry was rolling around outside before the drills Thursday morning.
The first scenario that the 102nd CST designed for the team involved a lab that may have looked like it was manufacturing illicit drugs, but was actually being used to manufacture explosives.
HazMat team members entered the site two at a time, first to assess the scene, and then again to bring in the equipment needed to analyze and identify hazardous materials.
Each time a responder exits the “hot zone” — the site of the toxic event — they must leave their analysis substances aside and head to the decontamination zone to be washed accordingly, explained Bernabo.
When the team re-entered the site, they brought several sensors for radiology and gasses, as well as a device called the HazMatID 360, which looks like a digital record player, but is actually an infrared spectroscopy system that uses a laser to analyze and identify hazardous materials through a massive archive.
According to Fisher, the HazmatID 360 can identify chemical compounds down to the brand. The district hopes to upgrade their HazMatID 360 to a more portable recent version at some point.
The second scenario involved a power outage and toxin extractions from plant matter. The job of a HazMat team, Fisher said, is not to clean up the mess but to identify and contain the hazardous materials in order to protect people and the environment.
Depending on their conditioning, responders can usually remain in Level A HazMat suits, which have oxygen tanks, for up to an hour and 30 minutes, according to Captain Phillip Troy of the 102nd CST.
The Hermiston responders all hold other jobs — from paramedic to firefighter — when they aren’t responding to the estimated 10 calls that happen each year across Northeast Oregon.
“We wear many different hats,” said Fisher.
Although the team still performs large quarterly drills and bimonthly trainings, Fisher said this can make scheduling trainings quite tricky.
For the Hermiston HazMat team, around 80% of situations are traffic-related, including the most recent incident out of Stanfield a few weeks ago when a truck leaked 5 to 10 gallons of diesel. The team contained the other 190 gallons.