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 lifeguard service for a population of approximately 1.3 million people within the 72.7-square-mile city. In addition, hazmat service extends into the entire San Diego County (4,255 square miles). Fire department and lifeguard services are extended to 17 miles of coastline three miles offshore.

Transportation exposures for potential hazmat incidents in the San Diego area include Interstates 5, 8, 15 and 805 and State Route 163. Hazardous materials are also transported out of Mexico (the Mexican border is 16 miles south of San Diego). A U.S. Border Patrol transportation holding area is located just north of the Mexican border in San Diego County, where there is a potential for leaks and spills to occur. The Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad, which has rail yards in San Diego, transports hazardous materials through the city and county. San Diego is a major marine shipping point and hazardous materials go in and out of the port area on boats, trucks and trains. Pipelines and tank farms are another source of hazardous materials exposure in the city and county.

San Diego is home to San Diego State University and the University of California, San Diego. These facilities have many research laboratories that pose potential hazmat response dangers. Ordnance and hazardous materials associated with military facilities in the city and county also pose risks.

Commercial installations in the response area store large amounts of chemicals, including propane, chlorine, anhydrous ammonia (associated with many cold-storage facilities related to the vegetable industry), pesticides (agricultural industry), plating shops and clandestine drug labs. Because of San Diego's location, nearly every type of hazardous material could be shipped to or through the area. Hazmat team members must be ready to deal with a diverse group of chemicals.

Prior to 1889, San Diego was protected by volunteer firefighters and during some periods had no organized fire protection at all. In 1872, Engine Company 1 was organized and fully staffed by volunteers. The apparatus consisted of a horsedrawn wagon and 12 buckets that had to be hand filled with water to fight a fire. The early volunteer department continued to grow and in 1887 boasted two steam engines, a hose wagon, 11 horses and 3,500 feet of hose.

A series of tragic fires in the mid-1880s led to the formation of the city's first paid department on Aug. 5, 1889. Equipment consisted of two steam engines, a hose wagon, two hose carts, a hook-and-ladder, and 4,000 feet of hose. Early firefighters were known as "foremen" and "extramen." Each foreman was paid $12.50 per month and an extramen received $10. Engine drivers and hose-carriage drivers were paid $75 per month and engineers were paid $100. Engineers maintained the steamers and rode the rear step of the steamer in order to light the boiler on alarms. Firefighters worked 24 hours a day for 28 days, then had one day off. Family members often lived in the stations with the firefighters.

In 1917, San Diego became the first fire department in California to have all mechanized equipment. Two years later, the department launched the world's first gasoline-driven fireboat, built entirely in the fire department shop by firefighters.

Today, the department is led by its 14th fire chief, Jeff Bowman. Fire companies are housed in 45 stations and there also are nine permanent lifeguard stations (25 during peak season). San Diego Fire has approximately 1,133 uniformed personnel and 19 civilian employees for a total of 1,252. The department runs 46 engine companies (with an additional 13 in reserve); nine truck companies (with four more in reserve); 14 medic units; a rescue squad; two hazmat units; one Environmental Response Team unit; a foam unit; six airport crash/fire rescue vehicles; one helicopter; three light-and-air units; 11 brush units; two water tenders; a mobile communication unit; 25 lifeguard vehicles; and five all-terrain vehicles. It also is home to California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 8.

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]

Thermal imaging cameras are used for hazmat responses, as are video cameras that allow video to be transmitted from the "hot zone" back to the command post or other location for review. Cameras for still photographs are also carried on the units. Inside the crew cab is a command center with laptop computers, fax machine, broadband Internet access, two telephones, a satellite phone, radios, computer resources such as TOMES, CAMEO and ORIS, and hard-copy reference materials that include Emergency Response Guidebook and The Merck Index. Each unit also has a weather station for monitoring conditions during an incident.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) used by San Diego is primarily Tyborg for Level A and Tychem 1000 for Level B. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is manufactured by Interspiro with one-hour bottles. In-suit communications also is provided by Interspiro. For WMD response situations, the crews use positive-pressure air purifying respirators (PAPRs) and MSA Millennium canister masks. Monitoring and detection equipment carried on the hazmat units includes:

  • BTA biological test kits
  • APD2000 chemical agent monitors
  • Multichannel analyzer for radiation
  • Joint Chemical Agent Detector (JCAD) for 12 WMD materials (military technology)
  • MultiRAE and MiniRAE detectors
  • Draeger CDS civil defense set
  • Ludlum radiological detector
  • Hazard Categorization (Haz-Cat) kit
  • M-8 and M-9 chemical agent detection papers
  • M-256A chemical agent detector kit
  • pH Paper
  • pH meter
  • BioCapture air sampler and detection systems

All companies also carry auto injectors containing 2-PAM chloride and atropine as antidotes for nerve agent exposure (a stockpile for civilian casualties is kept at Balboa Naval Hospital).

Currently, San Diego is working to form a Metropolitan Medical Strike Team (MMST) that will include fire, EMS, hazmat and law enforcement personnel. Assistance for WMD incidents is available from the 9th National Guard Civil Support Team, based in Los Alamitos, which is 86 miles away. San Diego's hazmat team is a member of the Joint Hazardous Assessment Team (J-HAT), whose other members include the FBI, Civil Support Team and police SWAT team. J-HAT provides a security assessment of major events taking place in San Diego. J-HAT is under the command of the police department, except when a hazmat incident occurs during an event; then the hazmat team is in command. The J-HAT mission is to assess an event for potential hazards and provide on scene response if a WMD incident, criminal act or hazmat emergency were to occur during an event.

The author would like to thank Battalion Chief Melinda Hathaway and B Shift officers and firefighters for their assistance in providing information and photo opportunities for this column. Additional information and answers to questions related to the San Diego Hazmat Team or other organizations mentioned can be obtained through the following contacts: Hazmat Captain on Duty at 858-636-4885; Battalion Chief Melinda Hathaway at mhathaway@sandiego.gov; or the website.


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 a veteran of 26 years in fire and emergency services, with experience in career and volunteer departments. He has attained the rank of lieutenant, assistant chief and deputy state fire marshal. 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 reached at robert.burke@att.net.

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