Meet "Chicago's Twins"

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Don't get excited, baseball fans, the Minnesota Twins have not moved to Chicago! However, the Chicago Fire Department Hazardous Incident Team has a set of twins of its own in the form of twin hazardous materials response units.

Built by American LaFrance, units 5-1-1 and 5-1-2 were placed into service in January 2004. Deputy Commissioner for the Bureau of Operations Eugene Ryan, a former Hazardous Incident Team coordinator for the fire department, has more than 18 years of experience in hazmat response and he felt for a long time that the city needed a second hazmat unit. He fought hard along with Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter and Chief of Special Operations Mike Fox to make the second unit a reality.

The Chicago Fire Department is led by Commissioner Cortez, a 29-year CFD veteran. The department has 5,000 uniformed personnel and is the second-largest fire department in the United States. Fire department personnel in Chicago respond to over 500,000 calls per year for emergency assistance in a coverage area of 228 square miles, serving a population of 2,869,127.

Chicago's first fire company was formed in 1832 and called the "Washington Volunteers." In 1835, the first fire bucket brigade was formed and called the "Fire Guards Bucket Company." Also formed in 1835 was "Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1." Hirman Hugunin was the first chief of the Chicago Fire Department, appointed in 1835. On Aug. 2, 1858, Chicago formed a paid fire department by placing Engine Company 3 in service at 225 South Michigan St.

Today, Chicago has in service 99 engine companies, 60 truck companies, four squads, 59 advanced life support (ALS) and 12 basic life support (BLS) medic units, 11 crash rescue units between O'Hare International and Midway airports, a collapse unit, two chemical units with 100 gallons of foam and 500 pounds of dry chemical, one fire boat, three helicopters, two hazardous materials companies, three light wagons, a mass-decontamination trailer at O'Hare and "Big Mo." a large-volume water-supply unit. Helicopters are used for water rescue and dispatched on all still and box alarms for high-rise buildings. Helicopters are used as "eyes" of the incident commander outside of building fires and watching for fire spread.

Chicago uses a box alarm system for dispatching emergency calls that has been adopted throughout Illinois and some adjoining states for mutual aid response. Outside the city, the system is known as the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS). An organization of hundreds of fire departments in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin, MABAS provides an orderly move up of equipment to fires, accidents or other incidents. Equipment is moved around according to predetermined lists, called "box cards." Each card covers specific types of incidents in specific areas. Small towns may have a single fire box card, while larger cities may have dozens.

Chicago's response system is divided into several response phases. The primary response to an incident is the "still alarm," which results in the dispatch of two engines, one truck and one battalion chief. Next is a "working still alarm, a confirmed working structure fire that results in the dispatch of an additional squad and command van. A first-alarm assignment is referred to as a "still and box alarm" and four engines, two trucks, one tower ladder, three battalion chiefs, one deputy district chief, one squad, one command van and one ambulance are dispatched. Extra alarms are added in the following order until five alarms are reached: 2-11, 3-11, 4-11 and 5-11. All alarms after that are listed as special alarms, so the highest level of a fire in Chicago is the 5-11 plus various special alarms.

There is no limit to the number of special alarms that can be requested. When a 2-11 alarm is called, an additional four engines, two trucks, one tower ladder, two battalion chiefs and one district chief are dispatched. The 3-11 alarm brings an additional four engines and deputy fire commissioners to the scene. On request of a 4-11 alarm, an additional four engines are dispatched. Dispatching a 5-11 alarm, the highest, brings to the scene an additional four engines. By the time a 5-11 alarm is called for, there are 20 engine companies, six truck companies and seven-plus chief officers on scene. If additional equipment is needed, a "special alarm" is called, usually five engines at a time and any other equipment needed.

Chicago formed its hazardous materials team in 1985 under the direction of Chief John Eversole, its first coordinator and the "godfather of hazmat." Eversole wanted Chicago to be ready to deal with hazmat emergencies. The original hazmat unit was an old panel truck with tools. It was not a dedicated unit and was placed in service at Engine 42's quarters. Since the team's inception in 1985, there have been just three coordinators, Eversole, Ryan and the present coordinator, Chief Daniel R. O'Connell.

Currently, "Chicago's Twins" are located at Engine 22 on the Near North Side and Engine 60 on the Near South Side. These units respond to an average of 700 to 800 hazmat calls per year, not counting fuel spills. Units 5-1-1 and 5-1-2 are dedicated and normal staffing is seven on each shift with four personnel and one officer set as minimum manning. (Hazmat team members are often referred to by firefighters on the department as "Glow Worms.")

Hazmat response in Chicago consists of three levels:

  • Level I is the minimum initial response to any suspected or potential hazardous materials incident. This level is primarily for investigative activities and/or to mitigate incidents involving small quantities or low-potential materials. A Level I response consists of one battalion chief, one engine, one truck, one ambulance and a Hazardous Incident Team (HIT) task force of one squad and hazmat unit 5-1-1 or 5-1-2.

Engine and truck companies currently do not carry absorbent materials; however, a program will be instituted by this fall so that each company will carry approximately five gallons of BIOSOLVE, a water-based dispersant agent for cleaning up fuel spills.

When responding to a Level I or higher hazmat call, a squad is dispatched, as is a medic unit to provide medical monitoring and ALS for hazmat personnel. In addition to the hazmat units, every squad in the city has personnel trained to the technician level.

Within the city, there are also 24 "Team" engine and truck companies. Personnel on these engine and truck companies are trained to the technician level just like personnel on 5-1-1 and 5-1-2. The Team engines and trucks are dispatched as needed on hazmat alarms and along with the squad and hazmat unit become part of the on-scene hazmat team. Engines and trucks that are Team units have a Hazardous Incident Team logo decal on the officer's side of the apparatus.

Chicago uses its own 40-hour hazmat operations class that results in all operations personnel having Level A capability. Over 70% of the firefighters in the city are currently trained to the operations level. In order for firefighters to transfer to the hazmat unit, they must have had awareness and operations training and be at Firefighter II. By the end of 2005, every firefighter on the department will have also received "Emergency Response to Terrorism: Basic Concepts" training.

Hazmat personnel utilize MSA self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with one-hour bottles; firefighters use 30-minute bottles. Level A suits are Dupont TK and Kappler Responders. Level B suits are Kappler Responder. Units 5-1-1 and 5-1-2 are equipped the same. Compartments are numbered on the right R 1-6 and on the left L 1-6. There is a walkway inside each unit with compartments inside. A combination crew and command cab is located behind the driver and officer seats in the front. Space above the wheel wells that is usually wasted has been utilized for spare SCBA bottles.

Monitoring instruments carried on Chicago's hazmat units include pH, Industrial Scientific, Rae PID Million, Rae PID Billion, Saw Mini-Cad, Draeger CDS Kit, radiation monitors, Draeger PAC III Chlorine and Ammonia, APD 2000, Industrial Scientific HCN Meter and others. Video equipment is also carried for videotaping any aspect of the incident deemed necessary. Mark IV antidote kits are carried for response personnel exposed to nerve agents at the scene of a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) incident. General hazmat equipment carried includes technical decontamination set-up, mass decontamination tent, Chlorine Kits A, B, and C, Weather Pack, and various leak and patching equipment.

A tool that is unique to Chicago is called the JEB tool. It is a large mallet similar to the type used for carnival strength games. It was at one time used to pound wooden pegs into leaking gas lines to stop leaks. (It takes a pretty big guy to swing the mallet, as it is 14 inches in diameter and weighs 40 pounds!)

Chicago is currently looking at a trailer-mounted 60-inch positive pressure fan for use in mass-decontamination applications. The fan is mounted on a platform with a scissor lift, allowing it to be elevated up to 14 feet. A 1.5-inch fire hose is attached, creating a large "shower head" for mass decontamination. According to O'Connell, the system "works great." The unit can also be used for misting during firefighter rehabilitation and ventilation for large buildings. Chicago relies on suburban departments Aurora and Bedford Park if mutual aid assistance is needed in the city.

Manufacturers often approach the Chicago Fire Department Hazardous Incident Team to evaluate new products for hazmat response. One of the first tests these products are exposed to is called the "605 Test" (Hazmat 5-1-1 is located at Engine 22 and 605 is the street address of the station). Firefighters at Station 22 perform the 605 Test. The first test leaves the sales personnel with their mouths wide open. A firefighter drops the product on the floor. If the product does not pass the drop test, the salesperson is sent on his or her way.

Chicago is a major rail center with rail yards from several railroads on its South Side. Almost any chemical that is shipped by rail can be found in Chicago's rail yards at any given time. The city also is criss-crossed by Interstates 55, 57, 65, 80, 90 and 94, making it a major transportation center for the trucking industry. Petroleum barges also navigate the city's rivers and canals as well as Lake Michigan.

Chicago's Hazardous Incident Team has been faced with several major incidents over the past few years. On an extremely hot Aug. 8, 2001, a flatbed truck carrying 3,000 pounds of azodicarbonamide rolled over on the Dan Ryan Expressway (Interstate 94) on the South Side. Rush-hour traffic was backed up for miles in both directions as well as on arterial streets. The Red Line of the Chicago Transit Authority rail service also had to be shut down. Azodicarbonamide is a highly flammable solid used to manufacture foam rubber products.

Responding firefighters called for a Level III hazardous materials response, and over 130 firefighters and 22 paramedics responded to the incident. Approximately 160 pounds of the material spilled and burst into flames, creating a yellow vapor cloud and smoke. Containment and cleanup of the highly reactive material proved difficult and as a result the Dan Ryan Expressway was shut down for 12 hours. Approximately 1,500 residents of the heavily populated area were evacuated. Heat exhaustion sent eight police officers and 13 firefighters to the hospital for treatment.

Another major incident occurred on Jan. 19, 2005, when a 295-foot barge carrying 588,000 gallons of clarified flurry oil caught fire and exploded while refueling on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship channel. Flames from the fire shot over 100 feet in the air at the height of the fire. The Chicago Sanitary and Ship channel is 105 years old and used as a link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Clarified flurry oil is a byproduct of oil refining and is used to make fuel oils.

One worker was killed and another injured in the explosion and fire. It is believed the explosion involved a boiler aboard the barge that exploded and ignited the oil. The barge sank in the channel approximately one hour after the fire began, extinguishing the remainder of the fire. Cleanup efforts were underway under the supervision of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Coast Guard.

For additional information about the Chicago Fire Department Hazardous Incident Team, contact Chief Daniel R. O'Connell at doconnell@cityofchicago.org or the public information officer, Firefighter Joshua Dennis, at joshua.dennis@cityofchicago.org.


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 via the Internet at robert.burke@att.net.

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