Emergency responders often deal with people when they are at their most vulnerable and frightened, and on Thursday, July 31, Vernon County’s HAZMAT (hazardous materials) team was put to the test as two methamphetamine (meth) labs were searched near Hillsboro.
Vernon County’s HAZMAT team has a staff of 30 including Vernon County Emergency Management Director Chad Buros and numerous firefighters in a four-county area.
On July 31, the HAZMAT team was put on alert that it would likely be needed to help with decontamination as the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies served two search warrants in the Hillsboro area regarding suspected methamphetamine (meth) labs.
Buros and two other HAZMAT team members traveled to the area near where the search warrants were to be executed and they set up a decontamination station, just in case law enforcement ran into a dangerous situation.
What was encountered was a difficult scenario for handling decontamination of people exposed to a meth lab.
As the first search warrant was served, authorities found three children, two senior citizens, and a suspect living in an home that had served as a meth lab. All of those who had been in the home required decontamination by the HAZMAT team before they could be transported for further treatment at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hillsboro.
By the time the first search warrant had been executed, Buros had already mobilized a second decontamination unit to be deployed near the location where the second search warrant would be served. As it turned out, five children and one adult suspect all had to be decontaminated from that residence.
Six HAZMAT team members responded to the scene during the day with three trucks and two trailers of equipment. All of those who needed decontamination were put through the process and taken to St. Joseph’s for further treatment. The hospital also went through its decontamination protocol.
Buros said the process is made to be as private and careful as possible, also members of Vernon County’s Human Services Department were on hand to help with the children.
“That is the difficult part — we’re trying to help them at the worst time of their life, that’s probably the worst day of their lives,” Buros said. “So, we want to relate and support them, and especially do our decon job properly, so they are ready to be safely transported.
“People have some idea of what a HAZMAT team does, we clean up spills of hazardous materials and do a number of other things to have a plan and prepare to take care of such situations,” Buros continued. “In this case there was a human factor. We did everything we could to make it comfortable for them. It was a trying situation.”
HAZMAT team members were witness to the physical symptoms of chemical damage to the children and adult occupants of the homes.
“The health conditions we encountered were dealing with people who had been exposed to [dangerous] fumes in a house over time,” Buros said. “The chemicals in the air and in the house are skin irritants and create respiratory issues. … Just by doing our visual checks, we could see that the skin of the children had been affected by rashes from the chemicals. You have to do your job, but that is the human factor that we as the HAZMAT team have to deal with professionally. Ultimately, the unfortunate part about it is the children are individually affected.”
Vernon County HAZMAT
Vernon County has had a HAZMAT team since 1997 which currently serves four counties — Vernon, Richland, Crawford and Iowa. There is a satellite unit in Iowa County, which is attached to Vernon County’s HAZMAT Team.
All of the counties contribute to a non-lapsing fund that pays for the service. A total of $50,000 is generated annually through a $2,500 contribution by each of the four counties and $40,000 in state grants.
Also, the HAZMAT team bills for its services. It has been able to collect compensation from every event for which it has had a response.
There are four levels of HAZMAT teams in Wisconsin with Vernon County being rated a Type 3 team (Type 1 is the highest rating.) Vernon County’s team can respond to all known spills. Teams with a higher level need to be called in if the spill is either unknown, radiological or biological.
The role of HAZMAT team isn’t just limited to response. As emergency management director, Buros is responsible for having plans in place for a number of businesses and cooperatives that handle dangerous chemicals that would pose a risk to the public if there were a spill or fire. He’s regularly doing inspections and ensuring these facilities are in compliance.
Buros is in regular communication with other emergency management directors throughout the state as they confer on handling spills, inspections and planning.
“We talk a lot to each other because we all run across unique situations and it’s important to share the best practices for taking care of spills and other hazards,” Buros said.
The HAZMAT team has four annual training sessions. Its members take individual training in addition to their firefighter training and they are paid for their time.
However, Buros said there is an underlying thread of public service that comes with being a HAZMAT team member.
“We’re doing our jobs, but we’re also supporting the Department of Criminal Investigation, local law enforcement, first responders, fire departments — a lot of different agencies that serve the public,” Buros said.
HAZMAT duties increase
Buros said hazards have existed as long as people have used hazardous chemicals and materials.
What is occurring over time is there are more hazards, which increases the possible risk of an event requiring HAZMAT services.
When it comes to things like meth labs, the HAZMAT team deals with small “shake-and-bake” cook debris, all the way to large red-phosphorus meth cook sites, such as that uncovered in Hillsboro.
Other hazards include any shipment of hazardous materials that could leak or be involved in a crash, sites where hazardous materials are stored that could have a spill, or worst-case scenarios where human lives are in danger due to fires, gases or chemicals that emanate from a crash or spill.
Vernon County’s HAZMAT Team deals, on average, with six calls per year in the four counties it serves. It has several vehicles and trailers in which to haul the gear it uses to either decontaminate or investigate the spills or hazards.
The evening before the Hillsboro meth lab raids, Buros was involved in a multi-county radiological alert that originated in Iowa County. Eventually it ended without incident, but the hazard required the attention of many different HAZMAT teams with different ratings and several law enforcement agencies.
“You have to be prepared for the worst and you never know what you’re going to get,” Buros said. “The response plans are flexible and we know what to do in any situation, but those situations change and our practices and requirements change with them.”
One of the most talked-about hazards has been the increase in shipments of Bakken oil, which is shipped by rail tankers from Montana and North Dakota to refineries in the southern United States.
The oil is the product of large frack mining operations. While the oil adds to the nation’s fuel supply, it also presents a hazard as it is shipped.
Buros said rail traffic along the Mississippi River containing Bakken oil has increased and that does concern residents in the numerous communities along the rail lines.
There have historically been plans for handling any potential spill or fire from a rail incident. Buros said those plans are being updated all the time with the aid of federal, state and local agencies and also Burlington Northern Rail-road. The railroad has special firefighting equipment it can bring to a scene if necessary.
“Railways have always carried some of the most hazardous cargo that is transported in the country, so the idea that Bakken oil changes that isn’t necessarily true,” Buros said. “But there are more rail cars traveling with Bakken oil, so we need to be prepared to deal with the increasing hazard that presents.”
To be informed, helpful
Vernon County’s Emergency Management Department maintains a Facebook page and a website.
Buros said one of the best ways the public can help the HAZMAT team is to simply be aware of their surroundings and report any concerns or potential hazards to law enforcement.
“About a year ago we had a 4-H club on a road side clean up and they came across a bottle that could have been from a shake-and-bake meth lab,” Buros said. “When the public encounters this, they should call the authorities.”
Law enforcement agencies will page assistance of the HAZMAT team if necessary.