By Corey Ranslem
Fire departments across the nation have developed many specialized response teams over the past 15-20 years to handle the complexities associated with responding to hazmat and technical rescue incidents – the latter differ from so-called “routine” operations because they usually involve very highly trained and specialized rescue teams and/or special types of equipment. Today, largely because of the tragic events of 11 September 2001, the development and use of specialized law enforcement and fire-rescue response teams is becoming commonplace even in smaller fire departments. In addition, a concentration on homeland security, and especially port security, has opened new grant funding sources for departments to receive additional training and purchase the much needed equipment required for specialized responses, particularly in the port environment.
As worldwide trade continues to grow, hazardous materials and chemicals are routinely shipped through ports around the globe. The fire departments that protect those ports require specialized training and equipment to manage many complex rescue scenarios. The U.S. government started the Port Security Grant Program (PSGP) after the events of 11 September 2001 to provide additional funding for local agencies dealing with port security and response duties. The PSGP already has provided approximately $2.5 billion of grant funding for state and local agencies, as well as private industry, to improve their port security and rescue response capabilities.
“The federal port security grant program … has been a great program to help my department obtain additional equipment and training to effectively respond to incidents in the Port of Seattle,” comments Assistant Chief Alan Vickery, a 45-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department in Washington State. “Through the PSGP, we have a level of preparedness and response we would not have without the program to better protect the residents of Seattle.” Port incident responses require a more complex set of capabilities than are needed for non-port incidents. To manage the numerous issues that must be taken into account, fire departments as well as other state and federal agencies must all respond and work together when an incident occurs at and within a port. “We train on a regular basis with law enforcement agencies and the Coast Guard on port response scenarios,” comments Captain Mike Nugent of the Fire-Rescue Department’s technical rescue team (TRT) in the Sheriff’s office of Broward County, Florida. “It is extremely important for our department to understand the response capabilities of the other neighboring agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard.” Nugent and Captain James Napp started the county’s technical rescue team almost 20 years ago, in 1992. Since the team’s inception, they have responded to thousands of TRT-related calls both in and out of the port.
High Angles, Confined Spaces & Trench Rescue Operations
The story is much the same 3,000 miles away, in the state of Washington, where the Seattle Fire Department responds to approximately 60-70 incidents per year in and around the port. That daunting workload includes at least one major shipboard fire response each year, according to Chief Vickery. “We have four fireboats that range in size from 40 feet to 125 feet, and two of those vessels have the capability to respond to CBRNE [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosives] incidents on the water or in the port,” he commented. “We also have a technical rescue team that responds, along with our waterside assets, to specialized rescue calls in the port such as high-angle or confined-space rescues.”
Vickery and Nugent agree that frequent and effective training is key to the success of dealing with port response incidents. After firefighters are accepted for the TRT in Broward County, they attend and participate in approximately 350 hours of initial training – which is followed thereafter by 40 hours of additional monthly training. Vickery says his department has almost 1,000 firefighters trained in the basics of technical rescue operations – including the highly specialized skills required for dealing with collapse, trench-rescue, and hazmat situations. “We currently conduct quarterly drills, and yearly exercises, with the surrounding agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the port businesses,” says Vickery. “It is extremely important for us to include our industry partners in these drills because they know their facilities better than we do and can help facilitate a much better response.”
Vickery himself sits on the Coast Guard’s Area Maritime Security Committee (AMSC) to help improve the close coordination needed between the Seattle Fire Department and the U.S. Coast Guard. “The Coast Guard monitors our radio system in their command center so they can respond to our calls for assistance in the port,” he said. “It is important we understand each other’s capabilities so we can provide the best response.”
Significant Challenges in Meeting “Every Possible Scenario”
Nugent’s team responded to a deadly gas leak in Port Everglades in 2008 when three port workers were killed by Argon gas in the hold of a ship. “We had immediate concerns of a hazardous environment when we first received the call, and we knew we needed to get into the hold as quickly as possible to get the workers out,” Nugent recalls. The workers had been immediately overcome by the Argon gas, however, and all three died before the would-be rescuers arrived on the scene. “When we respond to the port, there are a number of things to consider: what type of vessel, passenger or cargo; if it is cargo, what type of cargo is onboard; where on the ship is the incident; how many potential victims are there; and how do we best access the area of the incident.”
Vickery agrees with Nugent that there are a number of complexities in the port and shipboard environments that are not present in most “land-side” responses. “A ship is like a high-rise building laying on its side in the water with only a few access points,” he points out. “We face significant challenges of access when trying to get onboard a vessel. That is why it is important for us to train, on both ship design and layout, on an ongoing basis.”
The dangers associated with port responses will undoubtedly continue to increase along with the complexities of shipboard and port rescue operations. More than 90 percent of the goods and materials coming into the United States each year are carried by ships, and that level is likely to increase for many years to come. Meanwhile, cargo ships not only are growing in both size and efficiency, but also are more complex in many ways than their predecessors – and therefore will continue to challenge the resources and capabilities of local fire departments (and local Coast Guard units). “When we respond to the port,” Nugent commented, “we bring all the resources we think we might need to make sure we cover any and every possible scenario.”