Many fire departments across the US were taking a proactive approach to terrorism and WMD response prior to the events of 9/11. Since 9/11 all fire departments have had to step up their capabilities in terms of WMD preparedness.
With an increasing concern over the use of chemical or biological weapons being used against the civilian population, one aspect of this preparedness has been the capability to decontaminate large numbers of civilian casualties, both ambulatory and non-ambulatory. Mass Decontamination Trailers have been purchased for this purpose. While the size and shape of these units vary, the equipment load is fairly standard (tents, blankets, clothing, etc.). Some of these units have been purchased through grant money while others have been purchased through regular operating budgets. Many of these units cost $100,000 or more. Why should all of this equipment be left waiting for an incident that hopefully will never come? There are other ways in which these trailers and their equipment can be used during everyday operations. Let's take a look at some of the alternative uses. We will use the Greensboro Fire Department's Decon 19 as the example for this article.
Utilizing the Mass Decon Trailer (hereafter referred to as MDT) requires that its capabilities be known throughout the department. This can be accomplished via battalion training, video presentations or email. Once these capabilities are known, the unit must be available for dispatch whenever requested or as part of a standard protocol, such as automatically on all second alarms. The only way the MDT can be utilized is if its capabilities are advertised and made available to not only the fire department, but other city, county or state agencies (such as law enforcement) as well.
Decon 19 is designed and equipped to decontaminate large numbers of casualties. That being said, there is no reason why this equipment cache cannot be utilized in other ways. The inventory will now be examined in ways often termed as "thinking outside of the box".
Decon 19 carries four 14'x20' inflatable Zumro tents. In a WMD scenario, these tents would be used to decontaminate casualties. Two of these tents would be used for ambulatory patients while the other two would be utilized for non-ambulatory patients. These tents can be inflated by SCBA bottles, air pumps, an air cascade unit or by the air compressor carried on Decon 19. Depending on the method used, these tents can be inflated in a matter of minutes. The tents are equipped with portable lighting that can be powered by the onboard generator. They can also be heated by portable propane heaters or cooled with portable forced air ventilators.
With their rapid deployment, environmental control and lighting, these tents can be used for any number of purposes. With the addition of tables and chairs, they can easily be turned into a command post if a command post vehicle or suitable structure isn't available. Their environmental controls make them ideal for use as a rehab sector as the firefighters can rest in a climate controlled area out of the elements. This was found to be very effective on a two- alarm apartment fire in Greensboro during freezing conditions. A heated tent was used by firefighters, police officers, EMS, Red Cross and even the residents of the apartment building as a place to get out of the cold. They can also be used as an area where hazmat entry teams can donn PPE and receive their entry briefings.
Decon 19 can be used as the focal point of the rehab sector, particularly on long-term operations. In addition to the Zumro tents, Decon 19 has an enclosed toilet connected to a black water retention tank (the same system used on recreational vehicles). This eliminates the need for having large numbers of portable toilets delivered to the incident or relying on nearby businesses and residences for toilet facilities. It also has two onboard showers that firefighters can use should they become contaminated, either by chemicals or large amounts of regular products of combustion. On the exterior, Decon 19 has two fold out showers, one straight water and the other with a soap/water rinse. These showers can be used to wash off turnout gear prior to returning to quarters. This keeps potentially hazardous byproducts at the incident scene as opposed to back at the station or onboard apparatus.