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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.