Hazmat Studies: Fire and Police Combine For Hazmat Response: Part 2

Gwinnett County, GA, has one of the most comprehensive hazardous materials and hazardous devices response protocols in the Southeast. The county’s response to incidents involving hazardous materials and hazardous devices, comprised of fire and police department teams, is the only such system in the metro-Atlanta area and has become a model for other agencies.

Through this partnership, the teams have mitigated high-profile incidents including drug seizures, accidental hazmat releases and real and potential explosive devices. One such incident occurred in December 2010, when a raid occurred in a methamphetamine “super lab” that turned out to be one of the largest in the U.S. Officers removed 984 pounds of meth with a value of approximately $44 million. Gwinnett County police were assisted by the Gwinnett County Fire Department Hazardous Materials Team, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and area police.

According to Gwinnett County Police Major W.J. Walsh of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD)/Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Unit, “In the late 1990s, bomb squad response in Gwinnett County didn’t amount to much more than a bomb suit, some x-ray film and imaging technology operated by a hand-crank.” Now, the Gwinnett County Police Hazardous Device Unit operates one of the premier hazardous device response vehicles in the state.

Gwinnett County’s vehicle is a 2010 Pierce custom rescue body with a 400-hp Cummins ISL engine and Allison 3000EVS transmission. The “Bomb Truck,” as it is called, is loaded with state-of-the-art equipment to handle a response to any type of terrorist or criminal incident involving hazardous devices. A command center in the crew cab contains equipment to control remotely operated vehicles, view x-rays taken, along with communications and other equipment for response operations. Special features on the vehicle include a 30-foot telescopic camera; a powerful lighting system; flat-screen TVs that provide direct feeds from cameras on remotely operated vehicles (robots); storage areas; awnings to shade personnel; enough room to store three days’ worth of food in extreme emergencies; and a ramp for loading and unloading the remotely operated vehicles.

Remotely operated vehicles have the ability to x-ray suspicious objects or suspected explosives and return the film for development, thus not exposing personnel to hazardous objects. Response personnel can view developed x-rays on computer monitors in the command center or on large-screen TVs. The Gwinnett County Fire Department played a key role in the design of the police response unit. The police solicited their fire department partners for their assistance. In particular input from the hazardous materials team was sought because much of its equipment is used by both agencies. This support was fostered through years of cooperation between the two agencies.

Several serious incidents have been mitigated over the past several years because of the partnership and organization of the two specialty teams from the Gwinnett County fire and police departments. The teams started training together in 2004 and firefighters and police officers have volunteered to serve on both units. Personnel have received training far above the standard for firefighters and law enforcement in their individual fields. Firefighters learn the functions of the explosive technicians and are able to assist with preparing the explosive technician to enter a potential explosive device incident scene.

Fire department hazmat technicians are cross trained on much of the equipment used by the Hazardous Devices Unit. This includes chemical, biological and radiation detection and identification equipment. All hazardous device technicians are required to be certified as hazmat technicians prior to attending the basic hazardous devices school. Patrol officers in Gwinnett County are trained to the hazmat awareness level. Some operations officers are also trained to the hazmat operations level.

The fire and police units train together on a regular basis on the disciplines that are applicable to both units as well as training in supporting each other in their primary response roles. Training has been funded through the Department of Homeland Security with personnel traveling to the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, AL, the New Mexico Tech Explosives School and the Radiation Training Site in Nevada. Efforts of both teams have proven beneficial in funding equipment. Because of the cooperative effort between the fire and police departments, Gwinnett County has the ability to respond to multiple hazmat or explosives incidents occurring at the same time.


Staffing & equipment

The Gwinnett County Police Department fields 758 sworn personnel under the leadership of Chief Charles Watters, protecting an area of 437 square miles and a population of 814,000 in the unincorporated areas of the county and in some smaller towns by contract. The Hazardous Devices Unit (bomb squad) consists of three full time hazardous devices technicians and an explosive detection K-9. Additionally, two officers are assigned to the unit part time as collateral duty. The unit responds to about 100 incidents a year.

Equipment under consideration for the police Hazardous Device Unit is an SUV for conducting on-site assessments of key resources and critical infrastructure, along with a Bearcat to help provide ballistics protection to both fire and police operators, as well as being able to operate the remotely operated vehicles from inside an armored vehicle. Currently, the county administration is looking at the future construction of a “Superstation” to house both the Fire Department Hazardous Materials Team and the Police Hazardous Device Unit.

Many times, a response to a call requires the simultaneous dispatch of the fire and police department units. Because these two units complement each other so well, they are used together often, depending on the type of call. For example, a call for an unknown suspicious substance would trigger a dual response to ensure that all necessary resources will be at the scene. The police hazardous devices commander or fire department hazmat captain on scene will determine the need for additional resources.

The Hazardous Device Unit carries several remotely operated vehicles for use at hazmat as well as hazardous device scenes. These vehicles allow for the conduction of a preliminary evaluation remotely without having to send operators or other personnel downrange into harm’s way. In addition to monitoring instruments carried on the vehicles, they can deploy x-ray equipment to x-ray suspicious or actual explosive devices and bring the film back to personnel for development and viewing. The x-ray can also be used to examine pipes or valves on hazmat containers that may be wrapped in insulation and leaking. Video equipment on the vehicles can be used to view hazmat containers for markings and other identification information about the hazardous materials without personnel being exposed to danger.

The firefighters who are members of the Hazardous Materials Team are familiar with much of the Hazardous Devices Unit equipment, so if additional manpower is needed at an incident scene, they can be requested to respond. Training is also conducted with hazmat team members to provide EMT and paramedic support. EMTs and paramedics are taught how to treat police personnel who become injured during a hazardous device response. In particular, they are instructed on how to remove bomb suits during a medical emergency at an incident scene.


SWAT members rescue firefighters

Firefighters and police officers on the Gwinnett County Hazmat and EOD/SWAT teams have one of the closest working relationships I have encountered between police and fire personnel. One can tell by talking with them that it is not just a professional relationship, but extends to their personal lives. They have developed a trust and confidence in one another’s capabilities and expertise that lets them work together seamlessly on the scenes of incidents that are fire or police related. One incident in particular demonstrates that closeness.

In April 2013, police EOD/SWAT personnel were called on to rescue Station 10 Firefighters Chip Echols, Sidney Garner, Tim Hollingsworth, Josh Moss and Jason Schuon after they were taken hostage by a gunman holed up in his residence in the Suwanee section of the county. The firefighters had been called to a medical emergency at the home at about 3:30 P.M. on April 11. Engine 10 and Medic 10 responded, with the firefighters having no reason to believe the call would be different from any other they had responded to before. Upon arrival, they took their equipment into the residence and began assessing the patient, 55-year-old Lauren Brown. Several minutes into the incident, the patient removed the blood pressure cuff from his arm, displayed a handgun and announced it was time “for the real reason” they were there. He later displayed two other handguns. After the initial shock, the firefighters’ training kicked in. They set about to lighten the mood and make Brown feel at ease. The firefighters were asked to remove their shirts to show they had no weapons.

Brown said he chose firefighters because he knew they would be unarmed and that police usually do not respond with them. Brown was having financial problems and made demands that his power, cable TV and cell phone service be turned back on and that windows on the residence be boarded up with insulation and plywood so that police could not see inside or enter. All the demands were met. He also told the firefighters he wanted the fire engine moved from the front of his residence.

Moss was released and allowed to move the engine. Before going outside, he made mental notes of the layout of the interior of the residence so he could give the information to the police. The incident went on for hours as the firefighters worked to gain Brown’s trust by telling him they were on the same team. He gradually let the firefighters move around freely in the residence, which gave them time to plan and communicate with police who were outside. Hollingsworth said he believed Brown planned to kill the firefighters, set the residence on fire and then kill himself. Firefighters did not try to disarm him because they believed he might have had a trigger to set off explosives. This theory was formed based on the way he was positioned in bed and comments he made.


Relationships pay off

When the firefighters were alerted that the SWAT team was about to make a move to rescue them, Echols and Hollingsworth went to the kitchen on the pretense to get coffee. Garner and Schuon remained in the bedroom. Hollingsworth went to the front door on the pretense to get food that was being brought in by police and Echols remained in the kitchen. SWAT personnel entered the residence and set off an entry grenade to disorient the gunman. The firefighters were rescued with only minor injuries. One SWAT team member, Sergeant Jason Teague, was shot in the arm. Brown was shot to death by SWAT team members.

According to Walsh, “Firefighters being held hostage was of great concern to all personnel on scene, particularly to hazardous devices technicians at the scene who have developed a very close working relationship as well as a close friendship with many away from the office. The hazardous devices technicians deployed with the SWAT entry team.”

It is my opinion that the excellent working relationship between the fire and police departments in Gwinnett County facilitated the successful outcome of this incident. Agencies that train together and work together on a daily basis will also work well together on the scene of an emergency.

Thanks to Major W.J. Walsh of the Gwinnett County Police and Deputy Chief of Operations Charles Wells and Public Information Officer Tommy Rutledge of the Gwinnett County Fire Department for their assistance. For additional information, contact Walsh at bill.walsh@gwinnettcounty.com or Wells at charles.wells@gwinnettcounty.com. n