Doing my best not to stumble in oversized rubber boots, I walked to the edge of the emergency “hot zone” and gave the all clear for the entry team to approach the chemical spill. I could see the toxic contents of an overturned barrel spilling into a nearby creek, with a vapor cloud forming above it.
The team was mandated to assess the situation up close, identify the unknown chemical and confine the spill, as well as relay critical information to incident command and the information support team backing up the operation. All while dressed in chemical resistant suits and self-contained breathing apparatuses—not the easiest outfits for communication.
Already, nearby businesses and schools had been ordered to keep people inside. Environmental authorities had been alerted, road blocks were in place and a decontamination zone made ready.
It was simply a simulation, but it highlighted the complexities that arise in emergencies involving hazardous materials (hazmat), that is, any substances that can cause harm to people, animals or the environment.
The mock up was part of a hazmat course that myself and other Sun Peaks Fire Rescue (SPFR) responders completed over four days in March. The training is mandatory for firefighters to become fully certified in North America and it holds relevance for the Sun Peaks community.
Dave Rivett is a retired fire department chief from the Lower Mainland and has been a hazmat instructor for over twenty years. He understands it’s not only large urban areas that experience hazmat incidents.
“Something as simple as gasoline or diesel spills have a fair frequency of occurrence. They can happen in small communities and large communities. You can have propane and natural gas leaks, they’re part of the hazmat scope and they certainly happen,” Rivett said.
Most structural fires these days also involve some kind of hazmat risk, due to the high proportion of plastics and petroleum-based objects found inside homes and workplaces, which off-gas toxic fumes when burned.
Understandably then, “it’s extremely important for safety and for public protection for firefighters to have a good working knowledge of hazardous materials,” according to Rivett.
With Sun Peaks’ rural location, this training is especially important.
Captain Joss Advocaat is the training officer with SPFR.
“Some hazmat emergencies within Sun Peaks may come from our propane storage facility on Industrial Way, the ice rink refrigeration system, a spill from a fuel truck on Sun Peaks Road, and potentially a large spill from industry,” he said.
“It is important for SPFR to be able to recognise and potentially action a hazmat situation in our remote community. Our main priority is keeping our residents and guests safe.”
Rest assured, the risk of a large-scale emergency remains low in our community, but while the potential is there, SPFR responders will continue to train in how to action a response.
The local Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) would also likely be initiated in any incident and it is currently looking for additional volunteers.
“It’s a good option for people that would like to help out the community but may not necessarily want to become a firefighter,” said Advocaat.
Anyone interested can direct questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.