Hazmat Response In "The Mile-High-City"

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Denver, the capital and most populous city in Colorado, is in the South Platte River Valley on the High Plains some 15 miles east of the Front Range of the southern Rocky Mountains. Nicknamed "The Mile-High City" because its official elevation is exactly one mile (5,280 feet) above sea level, Denver has an estimated population of 566,974, making it the 27th-most-populated city in the country.

The Denver Fire Department began as an all-volunteer department on March 25, 1866, with the formation of Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. Initial firefighting was accomplished by bucket brigades. In 1867, the first hand-operated engine was purchased and used until 1872 (the apparatus is housed at the Denver Fire Museum in historic Denver Fire Station No. 1). In 1881, the Denver Fire Department became a paid agency with the appointment of a fire marshal, two engineers, two stokers, six captains, six horsemen, four ladder-men and seven janitors. The first motorized apparatus was purchased in 1909 and the last three horse-drawn apparatus were retired in 1925. By 1946, there were 22 fire stations in the city.

Today's fully career Denver Fire Department is led by Chief Larry D. Trujillo with 913 uniformed personnel serving a geographical area of 154 square miles. Each day, approximately 190 suppression personnel are on duty. The department is organized into six divisions — Operations, Fire Prevention & Investigation, Technical Services, Administration, Safety & Training, and DIA (Denver International Airport). The department has an Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating of Class 2 and an average response time anywhere in the city of four minutes or less. Denver firefighters respond to over 85,000 calls per year. They average 3.4 structure fires per day through out the city. Of their annual responses approximately 66% are medical related and 14% are false alarms.

The Denver Fire Department operates 26 engine companies, 14 truck companies (one tower ladder at the airport), one heavy rescue, a dive team, a collapse team, a hazardous materials team and a decontamination trailer. Twenty-nine of the city's 33 fire stations are suppression stations and four are at the airport (DIA). Airport units are not allowed to leave the airport, so the resources there are not available to the rest of the city. Each engine and truck company responds with four personnel. Ambulance service is provided by the city health department. Fire personnel respond to medical calls as first responders trained to the EMT level, but do not transport patients.

The Denver Fire Department formed its hazmat team in 1985 amid concerns about an increase of hazardous materials being transported through the city. Initially, the team was staffed by other companies, but in 1998 it became dedicated with four personnel assigned to it full time. The hazmat unit, HAMER 1 (Hazardous Materials Emergency Response), is a 2002 Pierce Enforcer housed at Station 6 with Engine 6 and HAMER 3, a dump truck full of dirt used as needed on hazmat incident scenes for diking and other purposes. Having the dirt readily available provides a valuable resource for the team in dealing with hazmat spills. Engine 6 personnel are trained to the hazmat technician level, as Engine 6 is the primary backup for HAMER 1 when assistance is needed. Four additional hazmat technicians are assigned to Rescue 1 and respond with the hazmat unit as needed as a secondary backup. Decontamination is provided by Engine 9 and Truck 9, assigned to Station 10. Additionally, on average 28 other hazmat personnel are on duty at other stations throughout the city.

Hazmat personnel receive 80 hours of training for the technician level. All other Denver firefighters are trained to the hazmat operations level. The hazmat coordinator and hazmat chief are on call 24/7. A full hazmat response in the city includes HAMER 1, Engine 9 and Truck 9 for decontamination, Rescue 1, HAMER 40, two additional engines and one truck, a district chief, public information officer, Air-Light Unit and other specialty units as deemed necessary by the type of incident. Tiered responses may also be dispatched, depending on the information available from the 911 call or reports from the incident commander on scene.

Denver's hazmat team is very proactive and team members have a wide range of knowledge concerning hazardous materials. Much of their time outside of responses is spent on training and improving the team and resources. Bomb squad services are provided by the Denver Police Department, but the hazmat team works closely with the police on clandestine drug labs. The fire and police departments work well together utilizing an integrated incident command system (ICS). They also work with the FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Hazmat team members assist the fire department Fire Prevention Bureau on inspections of hazardous materials in fixed facilities.

For many years, the Denver hazmat team has been among the leaders in most incidents per year, according to Firehouse® Magazine's annual National Run Survey. Denver's HAMER 1 was listed as the team with the most hazmat responses in the country in 2005 with 1,637 and was second in 2006 with 1,704. In 2006, the fire department responded to 2,155 hazmat-related calls. Each year, 35%-40% of the hazmat responses involve flammable or combustible materials spills and leaks, many from motor vehicle accidents. This includes engine company responses to fuel spills, with absorbents carried on the apparatus. Another 13%-20% involve accidents with hazardous materials potential. The balance of the calls are divided among chemical releases, biological hazards, radioactivity, bomb removal and other hazardous conditions. If called, the team will respond outside the city on mutual aid. When mutual aid is needed for the hazmat team in Denver, several area teams are available for assistance including Buckley Air Force Base. Help is also available from the Colorado National Guard Civil Support Team in nearby Aurora. Denver is training a second hazmat team to be stationed at Denver International Airport and staffed by other airport firefighters.

Hazmat equipment carried on HAMER 1 is typical of most hazmat teams. Chemical protective clothing includes Kapplar-Lakeland for Level A and Tyvec and Fire Chem and Lakeland for Level B (encapsulated and non-encapsulated). Breathing apparatus consists of Scott Next Generation units with 60-minute bottles. Towers and trucks carry 60-minute bottles and engine companies 30-minute bottles. In-suit communications are accomplished with Otto push-to-talk throat microphones. They also carry Chlorine A, B and C Kits, a mercury-spill kit, Purple K fire extinguishers and a bucket of Metal X for extinguishing Class D fires in flammable metals. Monitoring instruments include AREA RAE, Multi RAE Plus Meter, pH paper, HAZCAT Kit, Prime Alert Biodetector, Gamma Scinillator, Draeger pump, PID, Ludlums for radioactive materials, phosphine monitor and Smart Strips. Additional support equipment includes laptop computers, a fax/printer, a digital camera and radios.

Denver is near major highways, including Interstates 25, 70, 270 and 225. Additional major thoroughfares include U.S. Highway 6 and State Routes 285 and 287. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads have yards on the northwest side of Denver near downtown. Plans are underway to move the rail yards out of the city. There are also numerous pipelines in and near the city. Fixed-facility exposures include a major chemical distributing company, a chlorine manufacturer, anhydrous ammonia for cooling, and the Air Products specialty gas company.

Most of the nine U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) hazard classes of chemicals can be found in Denver's response area. Sulfuric acid is one of the most common chemicals present and polymers and plastics are becoming a growing problem for hazmat personnel. Denver uses the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704 fixed-facility marking system for sites that use or store hazardous materials.

Recent major incidents in Denver have included the removal of aging dangerous chemicals at Metro State College and multiple chemicals found in a private residence. As a result of the Metro College incident, Denver has developed a program to remove aging chemicals from schools before they create a problem.

In April 1983, a leaking railcar containing nitric acid created a significant hazmat incident in the rail yards near downtown Denver. A noxious cloud of rust-colored fumes chased about 5,000 residents from their homes for about eight hours after the ruptured railroad tanker spilled at least 18,000 gallons of nitric acid at a rail siding. Most of the evacuees were allowed to return home later in the day after soda ash was used to neutralize the acid. Three firefighters suffered minor burns from contact with the acid and three dozen people were treated for eye irritation and breathing problems.

The author wishes to express his thanks to Chief Larry D. Trujillo, the crews of HAMER 1 and Engine 6, and Phil Champagne and Heather Green of the Public Information Office for their hospitality and assistance in the preparation of this column. For additional information about the Denver Fire Department's hazmat team, contact Darwin Neiman, hazmat team coordinator (HAMER 40), at darwin.neiman@ci.denver.co.us.

ROBERT BURKE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland-Baltimore. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be contacted at robert.burke@att.net.

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