HAZMAT team ready for anything

Published 12:01 pm Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Members of the Pelham Hazardous Materials unit suit up while on call last February on site at a meth lab in Maylene. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

When Pelham Fire Department Battalion Chief Blair Sides learned the contents of a derailed train in Harpersville on June 3, he knew it was serious.

Two of the train’s cars ran off their rails during the mid-afternoon hours on a track near Dead Hollow Road, causing the Pelham HAZMAT team to immediately begin the journey to the site.

Like most of the HAZMAT team’s calls, the firefighters did not know if the train’s potentially deadly cargo was leaking into the environment. When the team arrived on the scene, it verified the duo of train cars had not been punctured, which brought Sides a sense of relief.

PFD firefighter medics Roy Simpson and Donny Sisco put together the ACU unit inside of the HAZMAT truck. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

“In Harpersville, the train was carrying ethylene oxide. If that product would have been leaking, it would have been one of the worst calls we ever responded to,” Sides said. “It’s extremely flammable, it’s toxic and it’s a carcinogen.”

Sides is the leader of Shelby County’s only hazardous materials team, which is based at Pelham’s No. 3 station off Shelby County 52. Every member of the HAZMAT team is a trained hazardous materials technician, and many members are certified chemists.

On any given day, members of the team know they could be called to respond to anything from gas leaking from a crashed vehicle to an explosives emergency.

When team members respond to a call, their first priority is to contain any leaks and prevent the hazardous materials from spreading into the environment. After the team has done its job, it is up to the property owner to safely clean up the accident site.

“Shelby County has the potential for some really bad accidents,” Sides said. “There are a lot of businesses that have some pretty hazardous materials. You’ve got a lot of pipelines running through the county, with Plantation (Pipeline) and Colonial (Pipeline) here.

“The Department of Defense runs weapons materials through the county in unmarked vehicles on a weekly basis,” Sides said.

Sides said the HAZMAT team responds to a high volume of flammable materials spills, such as leaking car gas tanks, and acid spills. Over the past several years, the team has also seen a rise in the number of meth lab calls.

“With meth labs, you sometimes have a toxic vapor cloud in the structure. Sometimes we have to go in on our own air supplies,” Sides said, noting the Pelham team usually works with members of the Alabaster decontamination team to dispose of meth labs and ensure the area around them is safe.

Because Shelby County could potentially face many different types of hazardous materials emergencies, the Pelham team maintains an inventory of everything from protective suits to mobile weather stations capable of tracking chemical plumes.

Because most of the equipment is “very expensive,” Sides said he constantly works to bring funding to the department.

“By getting grant money, we have been able to build up a well-equipped station,” Sides said. “But we are constantly working to keep funding coming. Even if you don’t use a piece of equipment frequently, you’ve got to keep it maintained. It’s important to have it ready when you really need it.”