Seattle Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Response

Seattle, WA, is the largest city in the Northwest and 22nd largest in the United States. Situated between the Puget Sound and Lake Washington, the city is 96 miles south of the Canadian border in King County. Seattle covers an area of 83.6 square miles with 193 miles of waterfront lying between the Olympic Mountains on the west and the Cascade Mountains on the east. Located in one of the most scenic areas of the country, Seattle has a mild climate with over 200 cloudy days per year on average. On clear days, spectacular views of the active volcano Mount Rainier can be seen to the southeast of the city. Population estimates in 2006 included over 582,000 in the city (1.5 million daytime population) and 3.3 million in the metropolitan area. The population density is 6,039 people per square mile. Seattle and surrounding areas are home to the Boeing Aircraft Company, many technology companies including Microsoft, and a history of ship-building and lumber industries.

Starting in the 1870s, Seattle was served off and on by several volunteer fire companies. Through passage of an ordinance in April 1884, the City of Seattle took charge of the volunteer fire service in the city. Initial firefighting equipment in the volunteer service included hose and a hose reel and a used hand-operated pump engine bought from Sacramento, CA. By 1884, the volunteers had acquired two steam-powered fire engines and a ladder truck.

Seattle's paid fire department was officially formed in October 1889, a few months after the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, which destroyed Seattle's volunteer fire stations and 125 acres (25 city blocks) of homes and businesses worth an estimated $8 million. Most of the structures burned were constructed of wood. After the fire, no new wooden structures were allowed in the burned-out area. No statistics were kept on any injuries or deaths, but it was estimated that more than 1 million rats were killed in the fire.

The first chief of the paid Seattle Fire Department was Gardner Kellogg, who commanded a staff of 32 firefighters. The department has evolved into a modern emergency services department under the current leadership of Chief Gregory Dean. A force of 1,030 uniformed personnel (supported by 79 non-uniformed civilian employees) operates out of 34 stations with 33 engine companies, 11 truck companies, four basic life support (BLS) aid units, seven advanced life support (ALS) medic units, two air trucks, two fireboats and two hose tenders. All firefighters are EMT basic certified and 81 are certified paramedics. In 2006, the department responded to 80,523 emergency calls. Of those responses, 60,306 were EMS related and 16,717 were fire and other emergency responses. Operations firefighters work 24-hour shifts based on a seven-day rotation. They work one 24-hour shift and have two 24-hour periods off and then they work a 24-hour shift and have four 24-hour shifts off. The cycle then repeats itself.

The Seattle Fire Department was a pioneer in pre-hospital EMS in the fire service. In the 1970s, the department began its Medic One Program, when its first group of firefighters was trained as paramedics in cooperation with Harborview Medical Center and the University of Washington. Providing service to Seattle for over 25 years, the Medic One Program has evolved into one of the most respected in the world.

The department formed its hazardous materials team in 1980. Motivating factors included the general movement of the fire service in the United States to organized hazmat response and the recognition of the need for specialized training and equipment to safely respond to hazmat emergencies. It is a non-dedicated team staffed by on-duty crews at the Headquarters Station/Station 10, at 301 Second Ave. S. (in the center of the city). Engine 10, Ladder 1, Aid 5 and the Hazardous Materials Unit respond together as the hazmat team. Typically, there are 11 hazmat team members on duty per shift at the Headquarters Station. Station 27, at 1000 S. Myrtle St., houses and provides personnel for the Decontamination Unit. Twenty-four technician-level personnel are assigned to Station 27. One officer and three firefighters staff the Decontamination Unit. All members assigned to Station 27 are decontamination technicians and have nearly as much training as those assigned to the Headquarters Station. In addition to the Decontamination Unit, Engine 27 and two tractor-trailer apparatus, one for Urban Search and Rescue Team and one for the Metropolitan Medical Strike Team, are housed at Station 27.

Firefighters and medics throughout the department are trained to the hazmat operations level with annual refresher training. Approximately 150 other firefighters in the city, special operations personnel, are trained to the technician level in addition to the 56 assigned to the hazmat team. Mutual aid for hazardous materials incidents is provided as needed from Boeing, the National Guard WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) Civil Support Team and the King County Hazmat Providers Group, made up of six teams of various sizes and capabilities. Initial technician-level training includes an 80-hour course that meets the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 472 standard. Once personnel are assigned to the hazmat station, an additional 140 hours of instrumentation training is provided during the probationary period and 200 hours per year of continuing training and education. Mandatory attendance is also required at all Department of Homeland Security/Office for Domestic Preparedness (DHS/OPD) courses. All team members must also obtain Instructor I certification.

The Hazardous Materials Unit is equipped with an inverter charger to provide un-interruptible power for the command cab, monitors and computers. Docking stations can run three to four hours without the unit's engine running. Two 12,000-volt generators are installed on the top of the unit. When the inverter system needs power, the generators automatically turn on. A private company has installed and maintains weather stations around the city. The hazmat team has monitors to access the real-time information from the unit's command cab. It also has portable weather stations of its own that can be deployed at an incident scene.

Seattle's hazmat team has responded to an average of 150 incidents annually over the past three years. This does not include fuel spills, gas odors and leaks handled by other companies with operations-level personnel. Engine and truck companies do not carry absorbent materials; these are provided from the city's Department of Engineering, which is separate from the fire department and is responsible for street maintenance and traffic routing. The hazmat team may be called to fuel spills, depending on the type and amount of material spilled as determined by the responding engine or truck company. Seattle does not use incident levels. Each incident results in the team response and special assistance is called for specific responses such as white-powder and drug-lab incidents.

Personnel protective equipment (PPE) used by the hazmat team for hazardous materials exposures includes Trellborg Level A, Kappler CPF3 and Kappler CPF4 Level B. Respiratory protection is provided utilizing Scott open-circuit SCBA, PAPR and APR, depending on the circumstances of the incident. For in-suit communications, Seattle uses Savox bone mics with push-to-talk on Motorola 450 mHz radios.

Transportation hazmat exposures include the Port of Seattle, which provides temporary storage and shipment of materials from all hazard classes, and Interstates 5 and 90. Rail traffic passes through the heart of the city, including a tunnel under the downtown corridor. The Olympic Pipeline Company has underground pipelines that pass through the city as well. Olympic is a 400-mile interstate pipeline system that includes 12-inch, 14-inch, 16-inch and 20-inch pipelines. The system runs along a 299-mile corridor from Blaine, WA, to Portland, OR, transporting gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Fixed-facility hazmat sites in Seattle include Harbor Island (a major petroleum-distribution facility), multiple manufacturing and storage facilities, bio technical industries and numerous hospitals.

Major hazardous materials incidents in Seattle have typically involved chlorine, ammonia, gasoline, ship fires, high-rise building evacuations, explosives and biological materials. Recently, the hazmat team was called to the Port of Seattle when U.S. Customs dogs got what appeared to be a positive hit for explosives on two containers that had just arrived from Pakistan. The team has a full chemical, biological, radiological/nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) detection and mitigation capability utilizing Metropolitan Medical Response System (MMRS) mass-victim-extraction equipment from Station 27. It also has equipment and materials pre-positioned in critical areas for major emergencies.

For answers to questions or additional information, contact Captain Geoff Wall or Captain Charlie Cordova at Station 10, Seattle Fire Department, 301 2nd Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98104 (telephone 206-386-1400).

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