- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 20, 2001

The D.C. Fire Department yesterday announced the expansion of its hazardous-materials capability amid criticism that its current "hazmat" unit is staffed, at times, with unqualified personnel.
Addition of a rapid-response hazmat unit will relieve the pressure on the city's only full-size response unit, which has been besieged by calls to respond to anthrax scares in the District in the past week, D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few said in a statement.
Kenneth Lyons, the medic union chairman, who advocates the rapid-response approach and multitask training of department personnel, described the addition of this particular unit as "smoke and mirrors."
"It's just one less unit that we have to take care of normal business," Mr. Lyons said. "They're not adding anything more to the fleet. They're taking away when these units are going to be placed on a hazardous-materials call."
Mr. Lyons also said there was a shortage of personnel trained to man such equipment.
Rapid 12, one of the department's two existing rapid-response units, is supposed to be staffed with Level 3 hazmat technicians.
But Mr. Lyons said it is staffed with personnel who are not properly trained to handle hazardous materials "more than 50 percent of the time."
"We do have a problem staffing those units," he said.
A fire department source familiar with the situation said the staffing problem extends to the main hazmat unit.
"Chief Few has given the city a false sense of security," the source said. "All he has is a truck on the road 24 hours a day with hazmat equipment on it."
The source said the hazmat unit often is cobbled together from one full-time hazmat technician and three firefighters who may or may not be qualified and who often are working overtime shifts.
But the employee also noted the department is not using 40 to 50 firefighters and emergency medical-service workers that have the necessary qualifications to work on the hazmat unit and about 10 more trained at the specialist level.
"If needed, the department has access to lists of people who are suitably trained to mitigate hazmat and weapons of mass destruction," the employee said. "If called upon, people with that training could serve on that unit."
Ideally, the hazmat unit should be staffed with a two-person initial-entry team, a two-person backup team, a resource officer and an incident commander all with at least Level 3 certification, as defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Fire Protection Agency.
Those regulations outline five different levels of training and their responsibilities.
Level 2 personnel the level of training for all career firefighters in the District respond to releases or potential releases of hazardous substances as part of the initial response.
Their purpose is to protect nearby persons, property, or the environment from the effects of the release.
Level 2 personnel are "trained to respond in a defensive fashion without actually trying to stop the release. Their function is to contain the release from a safe distance, keep it from spreading, and prevent exposures."
Hazardous-materials technicians, Level 3 personnel, respond to releases or potential releases for the purpose of stopping the release.
"They assume a more aggressive role than a first responder in that they will approach the point of release in order to plug, patch or otherwise stop the release of a hazardous substance," the OSHA regulations state.
Level 4 are specialists and Level 5 are incident commanders.
The Washington Times first reported in August that an internal fire department memo cited the department's failure to meet minimum performance requirements for Level 2 and Level 3 hazmat personnel.
"The current level of training is woefully inadequate with regard to the severity of risk posed to this jurisdiction," the memo stated.
In a Sept. 4 letter to the editor, Chief Few said the memo was released without full department authority and approval and did not reflect the department's preparedness for hazmat training.

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