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.
The rehab concept can be taken a step farther and the tents can be used to shelter civilians who have been temporarily displaced due to a fire or natural disaster. While the tents won't be able to take the place of a full-scale evacuation center, they can be used in the short term, especially in inclement weather. Decon 19 carries 500 sets of disposable clothing in various sizes and 200 emergency blankets as well. These items can be used in the short term to clothe people displaced by a fire or other natural disaster.
The disposable clothing may provide an asset to local law enforcement as well. During periods of civil unrest involving large numbers of people, law enforcement may be called upon to use less-than-lethal munitions for crowd control. These munitions may include such items as pepper spray. Transporting contaminated suspects may lead to cross contamination of police vehicles and structures. If the MDT is made available to law enforcement and is pre-positioned ahead of time, the crew staffing the MDT can decontaminate any persons (including law enforcement officers) exposed to crowd control munitions and provide them with disposable clothing.
Decon 19 carries a Honda ATV with a custom built trailer. The ATV's mission on a WMD event is to transport the Zumro tents that are pre-loaded on the trailer. After the tents are set up, the ATV can use the trailer to transport patients from the hot zone to the decon corridor. The ATV is capable of so much more however. On a hazardous materials incident, the ATV can be used in a tactical reconnaissance role as well as in transporting entry teams and equipment. This not only increases the effectiveness of the entry teams, but also decreases the chances of injury due to slips, trips and falls while transporting equipment while wearing cumbersome PPE. (For more information on the use of ATV's in hazardous materials response, see the article "The Use of All Terrain Vehicles (ATV's) in Hazardous Materials Response" published on Friday September 5, 2003.)
The ATV can be used on large fires as well. Instead of having weary firefighters transport their SCBA to a central air unit, the ATV can transport these bottles instead. This allows firefighters to save their energy for firefighting activities. The ATV's trailer can be used to transport rolled up hose back to apparatus. This is particularly beneficial when most engine companies are now carrying large diameter hose (LDH). This reduces the chance of tired firefighters incurring back strains due to poor lifting and carrying techniques. The ATV and trailer can also be used in transporting technical rescue equipment such as rope rescue packs and trench shoring. In many cases, the rescue scene is located far from paved roads making equipment transport all the more difficult. The ATV, with all wheel drive, custom trailer and equipment racks on the unit itself, make the ATV a logical choice for this mission.
The ATV also has EMS applications as well. The ATV can be used in search and rescue applications. One firefighter on the ATV can cover much more ground doing a land search than several companies of firefighters walking a grid. Once the patient (or patients) is found, they can easily be transported back to a waiting transport unit. Depending on the patients' injuries, up to seven people can be transported at one time via the ATV and trailer. The ATV can also be equipped as an EMS fast response vehicle during large crowd events such as concerts or festivals. One EMT or paramedic equipped with an aid bag and AED could navigate through crowded environments must faster than a typical transport unit could. As with any medical call, a few minutes could mean the difference between life and death.
In Greensboro, the Hazardous Materials Team staffs the MDT. This opens up another avenue for the utilization of the MDT; on scene atmospheric monitoring. Atmospheric monitoring is regularly done on a hazardous materials incident, but rarely on structure fires. By utilizing the MDT for atmospheric monitoring, the fire department can take great strides in protecting not only fire department members, but the civilian population as well. In most cases, fire departments only monitor for carbon monoxide and this is done only for the purpose of making a decision as to continuing to wear SCBA or not. This is often done with monitors whose calibration may or may not be kept up to date. By utilizing the Hazardous Materials Team's monitors, better readings are assured as the meters are generally calibrated on a monthly basis.
On scene atmospheric monitoring has other benefits as well. A database can be started for every incident and all firefighters on the incident. This way, exposure is documented right away instead of trying to figure out what happened several years post-exposure. HazMat Teams on chemical calls routinely do this, but not on fire calls. Civilians can also be told right away if they have been exposed to any hazardous materials, instead of estimating or guessing several weeks later when questions begin to be raised. Atmospheric monitoring can also follow the smoke plume downwind, getting qualitative and quantitative information.
While it would be possible to have the MDT dispatched on all fire calls of any magnitude (specifically dwelling fires and larger), this wouldn't be prudent as testing has shown that the amount of toxic gases is negligible with the exception of carbon monoxide. This intent is to have the MDT dispatched on all fires that go to the Second Alarm or greater, or where specifically called for by the Incident Commander as fire conditions dictate.
These are just a few of the many ways an MDT can be used in ways other than it was designed for. You are only limited by the equipment carried and the size of your trailer and your imagination. If you can think of other uses that have not been discussed here, please contact me.