Hazmat Studies: Meet Charles County’s Tactical Response Team

Charles County, considered to be part of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, is in south-central Maryland and borders the Potomac River and Virginia on the south, the Maryland counties of St. Mary’s on the southeast, Prince George’s on the north and Calvert on the east. Established in 1658, Charles County covers an area of approximately 215 square miles. The current estimated population exceeds 150,000.

La Plata is the county seat and base of the Charles County Tactical Response Team (TRT), which handles hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) responses in the county. The TRT is a part of the Charles County Office of Emergency Services under the direction of William Stephens, the team’s former chief. Fire protection in Charles County is provided by all-volunteer fire companies. Emergency medical services are provided by career and volunteer personnel and also are part of the Charles County Office of Emergency Services.

The Charles County TRT was organized in 2003. Previously, hazmat response was handled by the county’s volunteer fire companies with mutual aid from hazmat teams in Prince George’s County; the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Dahlgren, VA; and the Indian Head, MD, Volunteer Fire Department. Many volunteer firefighters in Charles County are career members in other departments. On Sept. 11, 2001, many of the volunteers were recalled by their career departments. Military agencies were locked down and could not provide mutual aid. The situation left Charles County stripped of part of its fire protection and hazmat-response capabilities.

As a result, the county decided to create in-house hazmat and WMD response capability using county employees rather than relying on others who may not be available at all times. Applications to join the TRT were initially received from 42 county employees, the idea being that they would remain in their present county jobs and respond when the TRT was needed. A full-time TRT chief was hired to organize and lead the team. All members of the team are paid for their duties on the team. Charles County provided funding for Hazmat 16 and most of the other equipment was purchased with Homeland Security and other grants.

The TRT covers 432 square miles and responds to an average of 140 hazmat and WMD calls annually. The team is also available to respond throughout the National Capital Region (NCR) to assist with WMD incidents and has provided standby personnel and equipment for special events. Engine companies in the county carry absorbent materials and handle fuel spills up to approximately 10 gallons. The TRT is called to spills above 10 gallons. All fire companies in the county carry four-gas meters that monitor lower explosive limit (LEL), oxygen, carbon monoxide (CO) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

There is one railroad line in the county along with several pipelines. Major transportation routes include Maryland 5, 210 and 301. The Potomac and Patuxent rivers provide transportation exposures for hazardous materials. Major fixed facilities include a power plant and the Indian Head Naval Base. Common chemical exposures in the county include liquefied petroleum gas, sulfuric acid, chlorine, hydrocarbon fuels, anhydrous ammonia, nitric acid, ethylene glycol, magnesium, cryogenic liquid oxygen and nitrogen. Past incidents have included a propane truck, an oil spill in the Patuxent River and confined-space rescues.


TRT Response Units

TRT vehicles include: Hazmat 16, the primary response apparatus; Support Unit 16, with towing capability for equipment carried on trailers and boats; a hazmat support unit and trailer; a technical decontamination trailer; a hazmat utility unit; a mass-casualty trailer; an air support trailer; a hazmat light tower; a Mule 4x4; and a hazmat command unit.

The TRT also operates a 25-foot Parker boat and a 17-foot Zodiac boat and purchased two new boats (a 28-foot Zodiac LE Series Enforcer and a 25-foot Sea Ark LE Series) that were scheduled to be delivered in late February. All vessels are equipped with CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives) detectors and thermal imaging equipment. The marine unit’s primary function is narcotics interdiction and enforcement, counter-terrorism interdiction and maritime hazmat mitigation (oil boom deployment). It has 3,500 feet of booms available and has applied for a U.S. Coast Guard shipping container full of booms. As the only clandestine drug lab-certified hazmat team in southern Maryland, the Charles County TRT assisted the Coast Guard’s St. Inigoes Station in a meth lab investigation aboard a 35-foot sailboat and other incidents on Maryland’s waterways.here are currently 35 hazmat technicians on the team under the direction of Chief John Filer and Assistant Chief Stephen Finch. Typically, four hazmat technicians are on duty during business hours, the chief and three from the emergency medical services. Other team members carry pagers and are on call 24/7 and alerted when needed for a response. After hours, a duty officer is on call and all team members are paged when a response is required.

Personnel from Charles County departments and other agencies who are team members include 15 from Charles County Emergency Services and 10 from the Charles County Sheriff’s Office. Since all hazmat responses and training are in addition to their regular 40-hour jobs, full-time county personnel are paid overtime for hazmat activities. Part-time personnel are also used to maintain the operational readiness of the team. These include one technician from the U.S. Capitol Police, six from the Pentagon Force Protection Agency and one from the Maryland State Police.

Indian Head’s Special Unit 9 responds with the TRT to hazmat incidents as needed. Special Unit 9 is outfitted with a 750-gpm pump, 500-gallon water tank and 50-gallon A and B foam tank. Indian Head has 15 hazmat technicians, 30 operations-level personnel and six certified hazmat incident commanders. Mutual aid is also available from Prince George’s County, although outside assistance is not often needed because of the Charles County team’s extensive equipment, well-trained personnel and operational capabilities. Bomb squad services are provided by the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) response team also provides assistance to the TRT when requested.


Training Requirements

The Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI), which also has a training center in La Plata, provides the technician-level training required for all members of the Charles County team. Additional training is provided by sending personnel to the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium training programs. These include Bechtel Nevada, Louisiana State University, Texas A&M University, New Mexico Tech and the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, AL. Firefighters in the county are trained to the hazmat operations level. Some volunteer firefighters who are members of career departments may also be trained to the technician level. In addition to hazmat training, some team members are trained in rope, confined-space, trench and dive rescue.

All TRT personnel attend 12 three-hour drills each year. Some team members are career hazmat personnel on other departments and have attended additional training at the National Fire Academy. Personnel are trained to do flaring of railcars, although they do not have their own welders, and they have complete off-load capability.


Hazmat Equipment

Monitoring capabilities include: QRAE four-gas meter; QRAE Multi Meter; Gas-Trac combustible gas detector; Drger Chemical Detection System; Drger Clandestine Lab Detection System; Drger Colormetric Tubes; Texas Instruments four-gas meter (Indian Head); Texas Instruments Chloride Pro Gas Badges (Indian Head); Texas Instruments Sulfur Dioxide Pro Gas Badges (Indian Head); WEI CD 200 Combustible Gas Leak Detector (Indian Head); PCB test kits (Indian Head); and mercury swabs and absorbent (Indian Head). Radiation monitors include: RAD60 Dosimeter; RAD50 Alpha/Beta/Gamma Probe and Gamma Scout. Level A chemical protection is provided by Tychem TK, Level B by Tyvec and respiratory protection by Scott 4.5 CBRN. The team has a Bauer air cascade system on a trailer. Communications are provided using Motorola 800 XTS5000 intrinsically safe portables with Radiocom headsets.


WMD Capabilities

Charles County’s TRT is a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Type 1 CBRN team. Much of Charles County’s WMD equipment is part of the NCR resources. The team also responds in a three-county area to Maryland’s St. Mary’s, Calvert and Charles counties. Additionally, the TRT is part of the Maryland Tactical Operations Group (MTOG), of which the Coast Guard is the lead agency. It may also be called on to respond to the Port of Baltimore. Past incidents have included a man with a pipe bomb, a clandestine drug lab and white-powder incidents.

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For questions and additional information, contact Chief John L. Filer of the Charles County Tactical Response Team at filerj@charlescounty.org or Chief Jeff Williams of the Indian Head Volunteer Fire Department at jwilleng9@aol.com.