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Resources for fire, EMS and hazardous materials responses in rural areas often are limited by community size, personnel availability and distances between communities. Hazmat response, being a much more specialized resource in terms of amounts of training required and equipment necessary to handle an incident, are much more limited in many cases in rural areas than fire and EMS resources.
Hazardous materials exposures, on the other hand, are not limited. In fact, hazardous chemicals may be present in much greater quantities in rural areas than in many larger communities with adequate response resources. Even the smallest rural communities may have exposures from agricultural pesticides, anhydrous ammonia, propane, petroleum products and other hazardous materials. Ethanol manufacturing plants are springing up across the country in rural areas, creating large volumes of flammable ethanol in fixed storage and rail transportation, in particular.
Throughout the state, there are 12 hazardous materials teams from paid departments that can be activated by the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (www.nema.ne.gov). At such times, teams are placed on the state payroll to respond to incidents anywhere in Nebraska, including rural areas. One of those teams is in Grand Island.
Despite the name, Grand Island is not surrounded by water. Rather, it is in central Nebraska, 74 miles from the geographical center of the state and 77 miles from the geographical center of the lower 48 states. Grand Island has a population of 48,500 and covers 27 square miles. In 2010, the Nebraska State Fair was moved from Lincoln to Fonner Park, a horse-racing track and casino in Grand Island, so the community’s population can easily soar above 100,000 during the fair and other events. Grand Island is also the county seat for Hall County and home to the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Heartland Events Center and Nebraska Danger Arena Football team. Grand Island also hosts many agricultural and livestock events.
The Early Days
Volunteer fire protection in Grand Island was organized in 1874 with the first fire company, followed several months later by the first ladder company. By 1876, membership grew to 25. In 1908, equipment consisted of hand-drawn hose carts, a ladder wagon and a hand-operated pump that took water from cisterns. In 1909, the first horse-drawn mechanical truck was purchased. The first motorized fire apparatus, a chemical hose truck, was purchased in 1913 for $4,150. Volunteers staffed the Grand Island Fire Department until 1921, when the department became fully paid. Today’s Grand Island Fire Department is led by Chief Troy Hughes and staffed by 68 uniformed personnel. Grand Island firefighters operate from four stations, using four engines, a truck, a heavy rescue, three medic units and a hazardous materials trailer. The department responded to 4,355 calls for service in 2010. Of those, 3,674 were EMS, 625 were fires and 56 were hazmat responses, including fuel spills, gas odors and leaks.
Grand Island formed its Hazardous Materials Response Team in 1985. The team’s first response vehicle was a converted United Parcel Service delivery van that was donated to the fire department. The primary response area is Hall County, plus approximately 800 square miles through mutual aid agreements with area fire departments. Additionally, the team may be activated by the state Emergency Management Agency and respond as needed.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Grand Island’s team became a part of the State of Nebraska response team. When called on for a state activation, the team may page additional off-duty technicians to assist in the response. Grand Island’s team is not dedicated and personnel from Engine 4 and Medic 4 staff the response trailer when a hazmat incident occurs. Three to five hazmat technicians are on duty each shift and additional personnel are called back to duty when necessary.