Hazmat Team Spotlight: San Diego Fire Department

Located on the Pacific Coast in the southwest corner of Southern California, San Diego is the sixth-largest city in the U.S. and the second largest in the state. The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department provides fire, rescue, hazardous materials, EMS and...


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EMS and rescue calls make up about 80% of total alarms. San Diego's EMS system partners San Diego Fire and Rural/Metro, a privately owned ambulance company. Fire calls account for approximately 7.2% and other types of alarms account for the other 12.8%. Every engine and truck company in the city has a paramedic on board. The EMS system averages approximately 184 medical calls per day and 67,000 per year. San Diego Fire provides fire protection and hazmat response to San Diego International Airport by contract.

The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department began organized hazmat response in the city in 1982 with an engine company assigned to run hazmat calls. In 1984, it obtained its first hazmat rig, a 1985 International Harvester Model 1954 utility-body Hazardous Material Emergency Response vehicle equipped with an interior lab. The box and cab were custom built by SuperVac. The unit was designed by the "father" of hazmat response in San Diego, then-Captain Craig Black, who retired some years ago as a battalion chief. In 1994, the present hazardous materials team was formed in a joint effort with San Diego County's Department of Environmental Health. The San Diego County Department of Environmental Health Hazardous Incident Response Team (DEH-HIRT) was founded in 1981 and is composed of 10 California state-certified hazardous material specialists. The team serves all unincorporated San Diego County areas, 18 municipalities, two military bases and five Indian reservations. The DEH-HIRT responds to over 400 hazmat-related requests for service each year. DEH-HIRT also responds jointly with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Hazardous Incident Response Team to investigate and mitigate chemically related emergencies or complaints. Together, they provide hazmat response throughout San Diego County.

Station 44 is the home to the San Diego Fire Department Hazardous Materials Team and is located at 10011 Black Mountain Road in northeast San Diego. It operates two independent hazmat units designated as Hazmat 1 and Hazmat 2 along with an Environmental Response Team unit. The oldest unit is a 1996 Saulsbury and the newest is a 2004 KME placed in service in February 2005. Both vehicles have analytical labs located in the rear and the KME also has an air cascade system.

Station 44 is not a dedicated hazmat station; Engine 44, Truck 44 and Medic 44 also reside there. When a hazmat call is received, personnel from Engine 44 and Truck 44 operate the hazmat units (each hazmat unit responds with four members). In addition, the county Department of Environmental Health responds with two to four personnel during the day (they are on call at night). Twenty additional technician-level personnel are assigned to other companies throughout the city. The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department provides a bomb squad that works with the arson team throughout the city and county. There are no law enforcement bomb squads in the area. Mutual aid is available from the federal fire department located at North Island Navy Base and Camp Pendleton Marine Base. All hazmat technicians in San Diego must complete the 160-hour state training course prior to being assigned to the hazmat station.

Most of the equipment carried on the hazmat vehicles is typical for hazmat and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) response situations. Each has a portable decontamination tent and use Sandia National Laboratories decontamination foam for WMD incidents. Researchers at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories have created a type of foam that begins neutralizing both chemical and biological agents in minutes. Because it is not harmful to people, it can be dispensed on the incident scene immediately, even before casualties are evacuated. The foam, comprised of a cocktail of ordinary substances found in common household products, neutralizes chemical agents in much the same way a detergent lifts away an oily spot from a stained shirt. Its surfactants (like those in hair conditioner) and mild oxidizing substances (like those found in toothpaste) begin to chemically digest the chemical agent, seeking out the phosphate or sulfide bonds holding the molecules together and chopping the molecules into nontoxic pieces. How the foam kills spores (bacteria in a rugged, dormant state) still is not well understood. The researchers suspect the surfactants poke holes in the spore's protein armor, allowing the oxidizing agents to attack the genetic material inside. Sandia National Laboratories, 1999]