GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Fitted in bright orange suits, it’s hard to miss the presence of the Grand Rapids Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Team.
On Tuesday members of the specialized unit assisted the Wyoming Fire Department during an anhydrous ammonia leak.
“Our job is to obviously manage any hazardous incidents in the City of Grand Rapids,” said Lt. Matt Dumond, a Hazardous Materials Team member. “Fluid leaks, gas leaks, sometimes solids. Also, we help our neighbors in the metro area if they have hazardous incidents as well.”
While Wyoming Fire firefighters are trained for hazmat situations and played a vital role in the incident, the department’s smaller size and resource pool required outside help.
Thirty-six firefighters make up the Hazardous Materials team. Dumond said that up to a dozen times a year, the team goes to incidents involving the dangerous chemicals.
“We have hazardous materials going through our county, through our city everyday via vehicles, via rail,” Dumond said. “Hazardous materials can come in all shapes, sizes, forms. They can be liquids, they can be gases.”
With thousands of potential toxins, the team needs specialized equipment.
The most important is personal protective gear. The bright orange suits offer the highest level of security, but its rubbery makeup makes it stuffy for firefighters, especially on hot days.
Additionally, members carry oxygen tanks, meaning the outfit weighs an estimated 60 pounds.
“That’s a fully-encapsulated, rubber, plastic suit that protects you against gases and splashes,” Dumond said. “As you can imagine, it’d be going outside on a day like today - on a hot day - completely encapsulated in a garbage bag. Actually, even thicker than that. So very, very taxing for them, very, very hot. We monitor their vitals before they go in and we monitor and cool them when they come out.”
Inside one of the apparatus designed for the team, sampling kits and monitors are stored. It allows instant analyzing of the hazardous materials the team encounters on responses.
On Tuesday, the unit used a detector to pick up the gas in the air while tracking environmental conditions to ensure firefighter’s safety.
The other apparatus is filled with absorbents and primarily used in highway incidents.
“We use a combination of old, tried and true, but we try to incorporate technology as well,” Dumond said.
The work can’t be emphasized enough according to Dumond.
“We want to be able to solve whatever problem comes up,” Dumond said. “From the very common problems to the stuff that’s more unique and more rare.”