Hazmat drill prepares emergency responders for the worst

Hazmat drill prepares emergency responders for the worst

URBANA — At 8 o'clock on a recent Tuesday morning, there was a minor explosion in a lab at the Engineering Sciences Building on campus. Two lab students conducting an experiment were injured, with one rendered unconscious.

A nearby witness called 911, which, it turned out, had been waiting for the call.

Unless you happened to be in the area of 1101 W. Springfield Ave. at the time, you probably didn't hear about the incident — and for good reason.

This was just a drill, one put on every year by the Urbana Fire Department in conjunction with the UI's police, Department of Health and Safety and Public Safety Division.

But no one taking part in the annual hazmat exposure training exercise treated it with any less urgency as they would in a real-life situation, The News-Gazette observed while watching it play out.

As soon as emergency services received the call, the drill began. The fire department dispatched a hazmat response team, with UI police and an ambulance unit soon joining them.

On site, first responders cordoned off the area and conducted recon to assess the severity of the situation. Rhonda Foster, engineer paramedic for the department, said this crew also made verbal and eye contact with the victims but did not enter the lab for safety reasons.

After taking control of the situation, Foster said the crew made sure to follow procedure at all times. As soon as reinforcements arrived, they consulted with the "witness," who provided information about the range of products in the lab but did not explicitly disclose which chemical led to the accident.

The team then had to make a crucial decision before moving in: Should they prepare for everything in the lab or just the most hazardous product?

They opted to do some quick research on what the latter was and went in wearing level-B Tyvek suits, designed to provide the highest level of splash and respiratory protection, for dealing with it, Foster said.

Respondents also referred to their emergency response guidebook, which helped them plan how to deal with whatever health hazards awaited them inside.

"Ultimately, it was about: How do we mitigate the damage from the product and make sure the environment is safe again?" she said.

Meanwhile, emergency decontamination teams arrived to treat victims or firefighters affected by the exposure. The "decon team," as Foster calls it, was also tasked with capturing remnants of the product and covering it in a tarp.

Foster estimates it cost the department approximately $2,500 to orchestrate and execute the drill. It is the largest-scale training activity they engage in every year.

Jeremy Leevey, fire prevention officer for the department, said the planning process is quite lengthy, taking about two to three months. But it's well worth it, he added.

"Everybody is taking it seriously. This is a great training exercise for us to work on skills that we don't get to use a lot," he said. "It's great opportunity for our people to train, learn and reacquaint themselves with the skills needed to deal with a hazmat accident."

While this drill dealt with the plan of action for a potent hazardous material accident, Leevey said there are only about two or three minor hazmat accidents every year locally. The most recent one happened in May, when there was a lithium fire at a UI lab.

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