Calif. responders conduct hazmat drill


By Donna Tam
The Times-Standard

EUREKA, Calif. — City Ambulance paramedic Ron Alleson probably hadn't expected his first day on the job to involve him convulsing on the ground of a former Pacific Lumber Company mill in Scotia.

But, as a part of a countywide emergency responders drill for handling hazardous materials, Alleson had to play the part of a paramedic who had been exposed to toxic pesticides that affected his nervous system, causing him to convulse. In the scenario he was one of two paramedics who responded to a car accident on U.S. Highway 101 that resulted in a punctured tank filled with pesticide.

Although the pesticide was actually water in this case, and the accident was staged outside of the former mill, the drill, executed on Saturday, allows the county's first responders to evaluate its area plan for weaknesses and ensure that local paramedics, firefighters and the Eureka Fire Department Hazardous Material Response Team get to practice response procedure, according to Environmental Health Division Public Information Officer Melissa Martel. Real-life scenarios of similar magnitude occur about one to three times a year, she said.

Saturday afternoon's drill included the decontamination and transportation of the "exposed" patients and the plugging of the leak in the "tank."

Both Fortuna and Rio Dell volunteer firefighters as well as Eureka Fire and Cal Fire were also on hand for the drill.

First responders run the drill every three years when the plan is updated, Martel said. This year's plan included the responding paramedics getting exposed as a reminder that safety personnel have to remember their own safety, as well.

"We always believe safety is No. 1. If we don't protect ourselves, then we're making the situation worse," Martel said.

The drill allows team members to identify weaknesses, such as the communication system, said Russ Brown, assistant fire chief for Fortuna Fire Department and the program director of the Northern California Safety Consortium, which the county contracted to design and implement the drill.

In this case, Brown said, the "contaminated" ambulance was the only vehicle with a direct communication line with the hospital, so responders had to wait for another ambulance to make its way to Scotia to pick up the "exposed" patients on the scene. Brown said one way to avoid this in the future may be to include a radio with the same frequency in fire trucks.

After the patients were taken care of and transported, the different agencies gathered for a briefing by the hazardous materials team, which includes a technical reference specialist who identifies what the hazardous substance is and helps to formulate how to approach containment. Martel said the team, which was also lost due to state budget cuts this year, is the only one in the county. Without them, it would be a six- to seven-hour wait for the next closest crews in Red Bluff or the Bay Area, she said.

Jaisun Chad, director of operations for City Ambulance, said the drill allows all the agencies to come together and work as a team.

"Every time we do a different type of exercise with different agencies involved, we find out what our communication problems are and where our coordinating efforts can improve," he said.

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