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FIREFIGHTERS QUIT COUNTY HAZMAT TEAM OVER SAFETY CONCERNS

     

Thursday, December 20, 2012 About a half-dozen firefighters have resigned from New Jersey's Gloucester County hazardous response team, claiming faulty equipment exposed them to high levels of vinyl chloride during the Paulsboro train derailment.

The Washington Township Fire District removed its firefighters from the county’s hazardous materials and decontamination teams earlier this month over concerns surrounding the response to last month’s derailment. The district also cited an “ongoing lackadaisical commitment” to hazardous response situations from the county, according to a letter obtained by the Courier-Post.

“According to our findings, these emergency responders were exposed to deadly gases due to the negligence of the county by its failure to maintain the equipment required to detect exposure,” Washington Township Board of Fire Commissioner Chairman Sam Micklus wrote in a letter to the county.

In the letter, Micklus said firefighters will never know the extent of their exposure to the vapor, which at high doses can cause cancer and liver damage.

Noting the firefighters’ withdrawal, county officials assured the public in a statement Wednesday that the current 21-member team of technicians remains “adequately staffed.” It responds to about 300 calls per year, ranging from environmental investigations, industrial accidents and calls for explosive devices.

“The county takes this, and all issues dealing with public safety and our first responders seriously, and is reviewing the matter and will address it accordingly,” a statement said.

Members of the county’s hazmat team were dispatched by the county as first responders to the Nov. 30 freight train derailment and chemical spill. Thousands of gallons of vinyl chloride vapor were released into the air when a tanker was ruptured after toppling off the tracks. More than 60 people were treated at hospitals for possible exposure, but none was admitted or believed to be seriously injured.

The letter to the county’s emergency management director Tom Butts states the Washington Township firefighters withdrew from the county team themselves following the derailment, and then made a request to the fire district for a formal withdrawal. The board agreed in a Dec. 6 vote.

“The (township fire district) will not expose its personnel to unnecessarily dangerous situations that could easily be mitigated by professional, qualified leadership and basic preparation,” Micklus stated in the letter.

He also made clear that last month’s response to the derailment was not the only issue at hand. Micklus alleged officials in the past have failed to prepare and inspect county equipment and also neglected to perform needed drills and inspections.

His letter said the district would consider rejoining the county response team following a change in its leadership and operations.

The county further defended the team Wednesday, saying it is audited by the state and that its members maintain certification through “regular training programs, exercises and drills.”




 


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