Hazmat Response in Yuma: Protecting An Oasis in the Arizona Desert

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The City of Yuma is located in extreme southwestern Arizona on the Colorado River, near the California border and just a few miles from Mexico. Although situated in the vast Arizona desert, Yuma sits atop an old river bed, which accounts for its rich farmland and huge agricultural industry – and the reason the Yuma Fire Department recognized the need for a hazardous materials team.

Yuma’s crops include citrus, oranges, limes, lemons, grapefruits, dates and vegetables, including most of the lettuce grown in the U.S. during the winter. Taking note of the numerous hazardous materials involved in agriculture and the need to be prepared for emergencies involving the materials, Yuma formed its hazmat team in 1994.

Besides farmland, Yuma has a downtown of one-, two- and three-story buildings and a vast suburban area of homes and businesses. The city also is home to the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground and the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, which is an alternate Space Shuttle landing site with its five-mile-long runway.

The Yuma Fire Department is a full-time paid agency with 89 uniformed personnel and a total of 107 employees led by Chief Jack McArthur. The department operates out of five stations and provides fire, EMS, rescue and hazmat response to a coverage area of 30 square miles. It responds to approximately 9,000 emergency calls a year, of which 84% are medical related. The department operates five engine companies, one truck, one heavy rescue, three medic units, a hazmat unit, and dive and river rescue teams.

The hazmat team is located at Station 2. Team members respond to about 80 calls per year, which include hydrocarbon fuel spills as well as farm-related emergencies. Engine companies carry emulsifiers, vapor suppressant and absorbent products on their apparatus. In Yuma, gasoline stations are allowed to handle spills of five gallons or less. Anything larger requires the response of an engine company. If the engine cannot handle the volume, the hazmat team is called.

In addition to the hazmat unit, Engine 2, Truck 2, and Medic 2 are housed at Station 2. Hazmat technicians may be assigned to any company in the city. Two technicians are assigned to Station 2 to maintain equipment, calibrate monitors and ensure readiness of equipment and vehicle. All other fire department personnel are trained to the hazmat-operations level and provide support for the hazmat team.

The first training class of hazmat technicians included eight firefighters and the team’s first response vehicle was a converted bread truck. Now, training for hazmat team members includes the 200-hour Arizona Technician Course, monthly in-house classes, and annual refreshers and drills. Yuma’s present hazardous materials response vehicle is a 2001 Ford 750 that pulls a Wells Fargo trailer customized by firefighters. The craftsmanship on the vehicle is extraordinary. In fact, the firefighters received an award from the city for saving $300,000 by building the hazmat unit themselves.

The hazmat unit is outfitted with typical hazardous materials equipment, along with two generators, an air compressor for filling self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles, an inside shower and bathroom, floodlights, computers, a fax machine, reference books and air conditioning. Reference materials include ARIS, CAMEO, Merck Index, Railroad Explosives Book and U.S. Coast Guard CHRIS Manual. Each engine also carries the Emergency Response Guide Book, NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, NFPA Fire Protection Guide for Hazardous Materials and Jane’s Chemical & Biological Materials Book.

Twenty-one personnel are trained as members of the Yuma hazardous materials team. Six team members are on duty each shift. When additional assistance is required, mutual aid is available from hazmat teams at the Yuma Proving Ground and the Marine Air Station. Automatic aid is provided by the Marine Air Station to an ammonia facility in the city near the air station. Structural response is also provided automatically to city areas near the air station. Additional mutual aid is available from the Imperial Valley of Southern California. Yuma hazmat has been called upon to provide equipment and expertise to deal with hazmat incidents in Mexican border towns as well.

Hazmat personnel wear one-hour Scott SCBA with heads-up display for respiratory protection in oxygen-deficient atmospheres, toxic gases or atmospheres of unknown materials. Each department member is also issued a cartridge respirator for specific types of respiratory hazards. Protective clothing consists of Level A Kappler and Level B Tychem. Yuma hazmat is evaluating communications systems for in-suit communications. The following monitoring instruments are utilized: chlorine meter, anhydrous ammonia meter, four-gas meter (CO, LEL, O2 and H2S), Multi RAE, APD 2000, radiation monitor, M-8 paper, M-9 paper, M256A Kits, pH, oxidizer paper and HazCat Kit.

Hazmat exposures in Yuma usually involve transportation emergencies and chemicals associated with agriculture. Anhydrous ammonia is common in vegetable and fruit processing and storage. Other exposures include chlorine, sulfuric acid, hydrogen fluoride, toluene, pesticides, liquefied petroleum gas and ethylene oxide. Interstate 8 is a major east-west route connecting Yuma with California and other locations in Arizona. U.S. Highway 95 is a major route north out of Yuma and hooking up with Interstate 10 (another major east-west corridor). Hazardous materials are also transported out of Mexico into Yuma from the south and west. The Union Pacific Railroad has a rail yard in Yuma.

In 1997, a 96% nitric acid release from a 40,000-50,000-gallon tanker in the rail yard kept hazmat personnel busy for eight days. The incident started when the nitric acid, which is a strong oxidizer at that concentration, dripped onto rail ties soaked with cresol (a hydrocarbon-based preservative), starting a fire. During off-loading operations, the off-loading tanker rolled over because of the soft sand in the rail yard. Mutual aid was requested and received from the Imperial Valley of California and the Marine Air Station.

In February 2005, a tanker truck carrying JP-5 jet fuel overturned near the off ramp of Interstate 8 at Avenue E. Only about five gallons of the 5,000 in the tank was released. Industrial hazmat teams from Phoenix off-loaded the tanker before it was uprighted. Foam units from the Marine Air Station stood by with Yuma hazmat and fire personnel. Another close call occurred in October 2005, when a sulfuric acid tanker collided with a car on Pacific Avenue. The acid tank was not damaged, although diesel fuel leaked from the tractor’s saddle tanks.

Yuma’s hazmat apparatus doubles as a rehab unit during hot-weather incidents. Temperatures from mid-July to the end of August reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. During extreme heat, fan misters are used to cool personnel, pop-up tents supply shade, and ice and bottled water are carried in battalion chiefs’ vehicles.

For additional information regarding the Yuma Hazmat Team, contact Assistant Chief Dennis Light, Yuma Fire Department, One City Plaza, P.O. Box 13013, Yuma, AZ 85366-3013; telephone 929-373-4850; or e-mail Dennis.Light@ci.yuma.az.us.


Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland. 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 at robert.burke@att.net.

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