Firefighters raced to the Nevada Air National Guard campus on Monday morning on a report of a suspicious odor and a missing worker. The fire crews, specially trained in hazardous materials (HAZMAT) assessment, checked the scene and called in back-up support, fearing a public health emergency.
Two crew members wearing impenetrable neon green suits, boots, gloves and oxygen tanks entered the Air Guard chapel, finding one man's body and the source of a hazardous chemical leak.
Fortunately, this was only a training exercise and no one was harmed.
Firefighters certified in hazardous material operations from Sparks, Reno and the Nevada Air National Guard tested their skills alongside REMSA ambulance crews and two civil support teams (CST), said Steve Frady with Reno Fire Department.
The CSTs are 22-member teams hailing from Las Vegas and Hayward, Calif., that support emergency personnel working on incidents involving hazardous chemicals, biological weapons, radiological contaminants, explosives and weapons of mass destruction. The CSTs operate under the umbrella of the federal Department of Homeland Security. CST crew members can help relieve tired or injured emergency crews, as well as provide additional tools and specialized lab analysis of chemicals on site, said Butch Van Leuven, Reno Fire Battalion Chief.
The local hazardous materials teams have specially outfitted vehicles that carry needed supplies including impenetrable suits and breathing devices, portable material testing tools, chemical analysis labs, computers and satellite systems. Additional vehicles outfitted with large showering areas are designed to decontaminate the crews and any victims exposed to hazardous materials.
The expensive, many-layered suits with attached gloves are designed to trap and contain a variety of hazardous chemicals, but can only be safely used once.
The drills are designed to sharpen the crews' skills, increase coordination among emergency agencies and reveal weak areas of emergency response, so that these areas can be strengthened or solved ahead of an actual emergency.
There are several common incidents to which the hazardous materials crews would respond. The Truckee Meadows is criss-crossed with highways, railroad tracks and airport landing strips used to transport toxic chemicals such as chlorine, propane, acid, liquid natural gas, petroleum and even low-level nuclear waste.
Van Leuven recalled an incident about two years ago, when hazardous materials crews were called to the Sierra Pacific Power Company's offices on an anthrax threat.
Reno Fire Captain Joe Nishikida recalled many calls on harmless chemicals, as well as more hazardous spills of acids, cyanide and pesticides along roads or railroad tracks.
While many incidents to which the hazardous materials crews respond are found to be generally harmless, it always pays to be safe instead of sorry. Hazardous materials training exercises occur about once a month, but rarely reach this scale and depth of coordination with outside agencies, according to Van Leuven.