Hazmat Response In Alaska

July 1, 2004
When I found out I was going to Alaska to teach a class for the National Fire Academy (NFA), I was excited, but having never been there before, I didn’t know quite what to expect. The more I thought about it, in addition to all of the tourist things, this would be a great opportunity to see what the fire service is like in Alaska, and more specifically hazardous materials response. What kinds of equipment do they have? For a moment, I even pictured in my mind a dogsled with red lights and a siren with firefighters in Level A suits mushing them on! (One thing for sure, I knew I wanted to see a moose.)
Photos by Robert Burke The Anchorage Fire Department’s Haz-Mat One, labeled “The Pride of Alaska,” carries a wide assortment of hazmat response tools, equipment and supplies, including specialized gear to protect personnel from the elements. The hazmat unit responds anywhere in Alaska that it is needed.

What did I know about Alaska? It’s far away from my home in Maryland, and it’s cold, with lots of snow and ice, and a lot of night in the winter and a lot of sun in the summer. But I really wondered how they did things in the fire service in Alaska. At temperatures as low as –40 degrees Fahrenheit, water must freeze pretty fast. What about decontamination at hazmat incidents? How do they do decontamination at temperatures that low? With all of these questions in mind, I contacted the Anchorage Fire Department and made arrangements to visit them when I arrived in Alaska.

The plane trip from Maryland to Anchorage was long. I went through three laptop computer batteries, several naps, and a couple of meals in addition to stops in Cincinnati and Salt Lake City (there is a four-hour difference in time from Maryland). Finally, we started our descent into Anchorage. The snow-covered mountains were breathtaking; in fact, the scenery was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before. When I reached the airport terminal, I obtained my rental car and started my adventure to find the main fire station in Anchorage. However, before I even got off the airport property, I went around a curve and encountered a large moose with a full set of antlers “clopping” down the side of the road next to my car. (I hadn’t been in Alaska for 30 minutes and I’d already seen my first moose!)

Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska, covering 1,961 square miles with approximately 260,000 residents. It is located at the northeast end of Cook Inlet, with water on the northwest and southwest sides, and the Chugach Mountains to the east. While the climate in Alaska can be very harsh in the winter, I found that the weather in Anchorage is rather mild compared to other locations in the state. Temperatures reach from an average of 8 degrees to 21 degrees for highs and lows in January and 51 degrees to 65 degrees in July. Periods of daylight range from 51¼2 hours at the winter solstice in December to 191¼2 hours at the summer solstice in June. Some locations in Alaska get 303 inches of snow each year (25 feet), while Anchorage averages about 70 inches.

When I arrived at the main fire station in downtown Anchorage, I found a modern facility with drive- through bays and some impressive apparatus (no dogsleds!). I noticed colored lights in the ceiling of the station and inquired about their purpose. I was told that it was part of the dispatch system designed to shorten response time. Even before they gather all necessary information from the caller and the radio dispatch is made, dispatchers turn on the appropriate ceiling light in the station indicating which apparatus will be responding. This allows firefighters to start dressing and getting on apparatus immediately, reducing response time when the actual radio dispatch occurs.

The Anchorage Fire Department operates out of 12 stations with a 13th under construction and due to open in December 2004. About 90 firefighters are on duty each shift and a total of 360 personnel on the department. Personnel work 24 hours on duty, 24 hours off duty, and have four days off after every third shift.

Anchorage firefighters respond to approximately 33,000 calls each year. Hazardous materials responses total approximately 112 with another 478 alarms involving the use of gas detection monitoring. EMS calls account for approximately 23,000 of the alarms that Anchorage firefighters respond to, or about 70% of their call volume. The city of Anchorage is divided into two battalions with 13 engine companies, five tenders (a tender is a tanker; they are not called tankers so they will not be confused with the air tankers used by the U.S. Forest Service during wildland fires), five truck companies and a hazardous materials unit/squad. All Anchorage engine companies carry absorbent materials for petroleum fuel spills. Each station has a three gas meter for monitoring oxygen, carbon monoxide and lower explosive limit (LEL). The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) uses Anchorage’s main fire station as quarters for its fire investigation vehicle.

Minimum staffing on engines and trucks is three personnel. Paramedic engines have four personnel. Tenders are staffed with just a driver. Efforts are made to staff companies with four personnel, but only if it does not require overtime. Crash/fire rescue at Anchorage International Airport is the responsibility of the state, but the Anchorage Fire Department provides structural response and EMS to the airport. Anchorage Fire operates EMS service for the city with eight medic units and five of their engine companies are paramedic engines.

Approximately 15 hazardous materials technicians are on duty on each shift, most at the main station downtown. Personnel assigned to the engine and truck at the main station staff the hazmat unit when a call comes in. Medics assigned to the main station are also hazmat technicians. Medics who are technicians are rotated in and out of the main station.

Photos by Robert Burke The Anchorage Fire Department’s Haz-Mat One, labeled “The Pride of Alaska,” carries a wide assortment of hazmat response tools, equipment and supplies, including specialized gear to protect personnel from the elements. The hazmat unit responds anywhere in Alaska that it is needed.

All Anchorage firefighters are trained to the hazmat operations level. Training is done in-house and involves the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 40-hour technician program. Annual training involves 60 to 75 hours. Ten members of the hazmat team have completed the NFA Chemistry of Hazardous materials course and six the Hazmat ALS course. Training and joint exercises are periodically conducted with the U.S. Coast Guard and Pacific Strike Team out of San Francisco. The Anchorage hazmat team also works closely with the National Guard Civil Support Team stationed in Anchorage. The city also is home to two military installations, Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson Army Base, which have their own fire protection, EMS and hazardous materials response units.

Anchorage and most of Alaska are unique in terms of hazardous materials exposures. There are no interstate highways or rail systems. There is no land connection with the continental United States except through Canada. Most hazardous materials that enter the state come through one of its ports. There is very little truck transportation of hazardous materials except for local use. Anchorage is one of the busiest of the Alaskan ports. There is one major road in and out of Anchorage and it only goes north or south. Hazardous materials that come into the Port of Anchorage are loaded onto trucks and railroad cars to be shipped to Anchorage and other parts of the state for end use. Anchorage does not have much industry outside of the port facility and fishing-related businesses.

The only chemical industry is oil related and some minimal anhydrous ammonia manufacture. Propane, anhydrous ammonia, chlorine and petroleum products are the major hazardous materials found in Alaska. Most of the large-tank storage of hazardous materials involves jet fuel, as one in every three residents is a pilot, and there is a huge volume of private and commercial aircraft activity in the state. Anhydrous ammonia and chlorine are shipped into the state in one-ton containers. Propane is shipped in by sea from Seattle and moved by railroad car into Anchorage from the port. Explosives used for construction and mining are brought in by ship and the fire department is required by the Coast Guard to stand by during off loading. There are very limited amounts of radioactive materials, usually related to medical and industrial usage. Sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid leaks related to the petroleum industry and railroad car leaks of acids and bases make up a large portion of hazardous materials responses. The Anchorage Fire Department also responds to clandestine methamphetamine laboratories to assist police in dealing with hazardous chemicals.

The Anchorage Fire Department hazmat unit will respond anywhere in Alaska that it is needed. The members are a close-knit group of dedicated, well trained and well-equipped professionals. I was very impressed with their dedication to the mission of the team and the attitude in which they approach their jobs. Given the dramatic ranges of weather conditions and varied light conditions, they have a very positive outlook. (The day I was there temperatures were in the low 30s, yet everyone else was outside in T-shirts!)

Because of the adverse weather conditions, the Anchorage Fire Department must provide equipment to protect personnel from the elements. The firefighters have heated tents for decontamination and dressing. Tents are also easier to deploy when units are called to respond to other locations in the state, some of which are accessible only by air. Water heaters are used to heat water year-round because even in the summer, hydrant water temperatures remain around 40F. It takes approximately 10 minutes to set up the tents and heaters.

To control spills and leaks in containers, the hazmat unit carries chlorine A and B kits, large dome clamps, hazmat patch kits, lid-lock dome kits, absorbents, over pack drums and spill kits. Hazmat personnel carry a variety of personnel protective clothing, including Levels A and B chemical suits, gloves (including cryogenic) and boots. They use Kapplar Responder Level A suits and Level B hooded coveralls made of the same material. Respiratory protection is provided by self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and cartridge respirators. Communications on the hazmat unit include 12 portable radios. Research is conducted using a library of reference books and a laptop computer with CAMEO, TOMES and PEAT. The reference library carried on the Anchorage hazmat unit includes:

  • ACGIH Guide of Occupational Exposures
  • CFR 49
  • Chem-Bio Handbook
  • CHRIS (Coast Guard Manual)
  • Emergency Action Guides
  • Emergency Care for Hazardous Materials Exposure
  • Emergency Handling of Hazardous Materials
  • Emergency Response Guide Book
  • Fire Protection Guide to Hazardous Materials
  • Guide to Selection of Chemical Agent and Toxic Industrial Materials
  • Detection Equipment for Emergency Responders
  • Guidelines for Selection of Chemical Protective Clothing
  • Hawley’s Condensed Chemical Dictionary
  • Hazardous Materials Desk Reference
  • Hazardous Materials Response Handbook
  • Hazmat Field Guide
  • Medical Management of Chemical Casualties
  • Medical Management of Biological Casualties
  • Merck Index
  • NIOSH Pocket Guide
  • Quick Action Guide to Chemical Clothing
  • SAX’s Dangerous Properties
Photos by Robert Burke The Anchorage Fire Department’s Haz-Mat One, labeled “The Pride of Alaska,” carries a wide assortment of hazmat response tools, equipment and supplies, including specialized gear to protect personnel from the elements. The hazmat unit responds anywhere in Alaska that it is needed.

Anchorage uses many monitoring instruments for hazardous materials, radiation and terrorist agent releases, including three- and four-gas monitors, a chemical agent detector, portable gas detectors for chlorine and ammonia, survey meters for radiation, a photo ionization detector and chemical analysis kits.

Documentation and incident management checklists and packets are used to assist in gathering and recording information about an incident and the response. Each team leader, such as decontamination, site entry, safety, technical resource and incident commander, is given a pre-packaged packet of forms to assist in documentation of an incident. Checklists also are written in such a way to remind team leaders of the type of information that must be gathered and proper procedures to follow during an incident. The check lists are very comprehensive and include medical monitoring, product and container information, and initial response objectives.

Several major hazmat incidents have occurred in Anchorage since 1990. On May 20, 1992, a freon leak occurred at an ice skating rink. Freon is a gas that can displace oxygen in the air and cause asphyxiation. Thirty-three people were exposed to the leaking freon inside the rink. A worker who entered the compressor room to shut down the refrigeration system where the leak occurred was overcome and died. Two other workers were overcome and unconscious, but were rescued by firefighters and recovered. Following the incident, Alaska State Department of Labor officials issued citations to the mall management that included 48 health and safety violations. Fines related to the health and safety issues amounted to $87,000.

On Nov. 27, 1997, a backhoe operator hit a 500-gallon aboveground propane storage tank and knocked off the pressure relief valve. A worker from the propane company suffered frostbite on his hand while trying to plug the leak in the tank. The neighborhood was evacuated by firefighters and the air was monitored for propane. Ignition sources were secured and utilities turned off as a precaution. No fire occurred.

In spite of the variations in working conditions and the isolation from the continental United States, fire and hazmat response in Alaska and specifically Anchorage isn’t that different from other parts of the country. Though much of its equipment and the supplies must be shipped in by boat, the Anchorage Fire Department is well equipped and prepared to deal with hazardous materials responses wherever and whenever they are called.


Anchorage firefighters have developed a method of decontaminating personnel during extreme cold conditions, using “dry decontamination” procedures. These procedures are used when personnel are exposed to a gaseous atmosphere or are not significantly contaminated by a product.

Positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) fans are set up to blow off any residual gas that may be pocketed anywhere on the suit. Personnel then step into a large plastic bag that has been repositioned on a tarp and are assisted by other team members to remove their suits. The person within the suit does not take part in the removal. Other team members roll the suit with the contaminated side away from the wearer. Once the suit is rolled all the way down, the wearer steps out of the suit. The suit is then packaged within the plastic bag and properly disposed of.

—Robert Burke

Photos by Robert Burke Step 1. A large plastic bag is positioned on a tarpaulin.
Photos by Robert Burke Step 2. The responder’s Level A chemical suit is checked for contaminants before the decontamination process begins.
Photos by Robert Burke Step 3. A positive-pressure ventilation fan blows off any residual gas that may be pocketed on the chemical suit.
Photos by Robert Burke Step 4. Entry personnel approach the large plastic bag.
Photos by Robert Burke Step 5. Decontamination team members remove the responder’s Level A suit.
Photos by Robert Burke Step 6. The Level A suit is enclosed in the plastic bag for evaluation or disposal.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 24 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 in the Internet at [email protected].

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