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iBerkshires.com Columnist Section

Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Hazardous Materials Emergencies: "We Learn Something Every Time"

By Jen Thomas
07:58PM / Tuesday, June 19, 2007

City firefighter David Simon donned the protective clothing necessary for a hazardous materials decontamination situation. [Photo by Jen Thomas]
North Adams - A professional partnership between city firefighters and North Adams Regional Hospital employees means both groups have a training advantage in the event of a hazardous materials contamination incident.

Earlier today, a mass decontamination training was held at the hosiptal. The session included sending "victims" through a tent-like structure used during chemical contaminant removal. Patients enter one end of the tent, called the "hot zone," are hosed down by scrubbers and water jets, and exit at the "cool zone" where they can be admitted into the hospital without fear of spreading chemical agents.

The goal is safety for the patient, those working to decontaminate individuals, and the employees and patients inside the hospital.

"We're trying to learn how to keep the contaminant out of the hospital while working together," said Matthew LaBonte, an acting lieutenant in the NAFD.


Acting Lt. Matt LaBonte was given a vital signs examination by EMT Kevin Alicea. [Photo by Jen Thomas]
LaBonte and firefighter David Simon donned Level A protective gear, which is necessary in cases where maximum skin, respiratory and eye protection is required. The pair were stationed at the center of the decontamination unit, where their training was in washing incapacitated victims.

Firefighter Michael Roberts acted role of the victim and volunteered to undergo spraying for the sake of education.

"This is my second time being the victim," he said. "It's not bad, but it's one of those things you hope you never have to use in real life."

The simulation gave employees of the NAFD and NARH an opportunity to ask questions of LaBonte and Director of Facilities Darryl Smith, who were in charge of constructing and executing the afternoon training.

"Today was more of a training than a drill; it was less about time and efficiency and more about familiarizing ourselves with the equipment better," Smith said. "We learn something every time the fire department comes out to do one of these."

The training requires hospital participants to stand at the entrance and provide volunteer "contaminated victims" with accurate instructions in removing their clothing, placing their personal items in sealed protective bags and moving through the decontamination unit. The interactive training requires both fire department and hospital personnel to demonstrate "don and doff," the process of putting on and removing the protective suits.

Firefghters David Simon and Matt LaBonte "decontaminate" firefighter Micheal Roberts during today's training session. [Photo by Jen Thomas]


"We’re trying to become familiar with everything, including the gear," said LaBonte.

With a set-up that includes a full head-to-toe chemical protective suit complete with hood, rubber boots, gloves, and mouth piece, the practice is necessary. The firefighters use supplied air in the decontamination unit and may utlize the air supply for an hour, according to hospital regulations.

In case of emergency, on a typical day, during daytime hours, between eight and 16 staff people would be available to administer decontamination showers to victims, according to Smith.

"At least eight is an efficient team," Smith said. LaBonte said he thought 12 staff personnel would be perfect, with four assigned to each of the three segments of the tent.

The training comes as part of an International Fire and EMS Safety Stand Down Week. The week's theme, "Ready to Respond," will focus on proper training and equipment and will prepare firefighters and emergency medical technicians to respond to, mitigate and return home safely from an emergency, as outlined by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the Volunteer and Combination Officers Section (VCOS) of the IAFC.

"It focuses on safety all week long, whether it's trainings or just wearing a safety belt on the way to a call," said LaBonte.

LaBonte, Smith, Roberts and Simon agreed that the training was successful in better preparing everyone involved for a chemical emergency, but there are always more wrinkles to be ironed out.

"In real life, this would be chaotic, so the training is important," said Roberts. "It’s great experience and the hospital staff are going to be major players."

LaBonte said that the fire department has paired up with the NARH for this kind of training on previous occasions. The city has not yet needed a mass decontamination tent but it’s important that both sets of personnel are properly trained, he emphasized.


"We’re trying to get different people to learn, and I think it’s going to be a combination of the hospital and the fire department that makes [the process] work," said Simon.

Jen Thomas may be reached via e-mail at jthomas@iberkshires.com or at 413-663-3384 ext. 23.
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