Firefighters train to respond to HazMat situations

BUFORD - Ashley Hilsman and Zach Schaller, dressed in Level A HazMat suits, were confronted by a vapor cloud as they entered the room.

The two Gwinnett County Department of Fire and Emergency Services employees got to work finding and stopping the leaks in the chlorine tank.

Luckily, poisonous chlorine gas posed no threat to the community Monday. Hilsman, Schaller and other HazMat technicians were receiving specialized training at Fire Station No. 24 in Buford, near the Mall of Georgia. The vapor cloud was created by a fog machine, and pressurized air was used to simulate the leaking chlorine gas.

"Stuff like this could happen at any time, and you want to be ready," said Hilsman, a member of the backup HazMat team. "Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best."

Safety Systems Emergency Counter-Measure Services, a Florida-based company, is providing nine days of training - three days for each of the department's three 24-hour shifts, said Ron Gore, the company's president.

Another exercise focused on teaching the firefighters how to displace propane in a tank to turn a propane leak into a water leak. That way, the team could stop the leak safely, Gore said. The firefighters also learned how to replace a valve while a propane pipe is leaking, a procedure that could cause chemical burns if done incorrectly.

Gwinnett Fire Capt. Greg Mitchell said the training was providing members of the HazMat teams with hands-on lessons in how to handle hazardous situations appropriately.

"If we don't handle the situation properly, it can cost the county and the taxpayers thousands of dollars," Mitchell said. "This class will more than pay for itself."

Safety Systems also allowed the firefighters to use training tools, or props, they don't have at the station.

Capt. Thomas Rutledge, the Fire Department's spokesman, said firefighters frequently respond to leaks in natural gas lines, but emergencies involving tanks or tractor-trailers carrying chemicals are rare.

"It's not something you see every day, but because of the potential ... we'd rather train and be ready than be confronted on scene," Rutledge said. "Because of the interstate system and chemicals in transit and storage tanks, firefighters need to learn how to control these types of vessels as well."