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Coast Guard Strike Team Quickly Answers the Call

Times Staff Writer

Strike Team. The term denotes a group capable of quick, decisive action, and that was just what was needed by local authorities who for 36 hours had been battling unsuccessfully to gain control of a fire in an Anaheim chemical warehouse.

Less than a hour after receiving a call for assistance Monday, members of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Pacific Strike Team were on their way from their headquarters at Hamilton Air Force Base north of San Francisco.

They carried with them not only the most sophisticated equipment available but also a wealth of knowledge and expertise gathered from 12 years of dealing with such situations on a worldwide basis.

Three members of the team, which is being led by Lt. (j.g.) Adolph Ramirez, arrived at 5 p.m. to assume command of the cleanup operation, while five more personnel were on site by 10 p.m., bringing with them a truck and trailer that serves as a mobile command post and carries all of their gear.

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“The job is much bigger, much more sophisticated to control,” Capt. Michael Rhode of the Orange County Fire Department’s hazardous materials response team said Monday. “We fought it until we felt we couldn’t control the situation any longer.”

“We had exceeded the limit of our capacity and our local expertise,” added Anaheim Fire Chief Robert Simpson. “So we decided to call them in.”

The call for assistance, which was relayed through the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s on-scene coordinator, came as no surprise, according to Lt. Cmdr. D.D. (Buzz) Rome, the strike team’s commanding officer.

“We had been monitoring the situation since Sunday night and were in contact with the county fire people that night and Monday morning,” Rome said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Hamilton Air Force Base. “Monday morning we started inventorying our equipment so we could be ready to launch out quickly when the call came.”

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The ability to move quickly--and expertly--was what Congress had in mind when it created the strike team concept with the enactment of the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Act. The grounding of the tanker Torrey Canyon, which spilled 3.2 million barrels of oil on the English coast in 1967, was behind the idea, according to Rome.

Rome’s unit, which is made up of 23 enlisted men and four officers, covers 14 western continental states, Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. trust territories in the Western Pacific. There are also similar teams on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Rome says the team works with “whatever is the best technology available” and that among its nearly $20 million worth of cleanup gear are special suits and masks, breathing apparatuses, air monitors and even a thermometer that can take temperature readings from 300 yards.

“It’s sort of like a gun with a telescopic sight that we use to determine where hot spots are without having to go in there and actually touch something,” Rome said.

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Although the entire team, including the truck and trailer, can be deployed by military aircraft, Rome said, “We just usually drive the truck down there (to Southern California) because it’s actually quicker.”

As far as personnel go, Rome said, “The basic quality we’re looking for is someone who will go out and represent the Coast Guard in a very professional manner. They have to handle pressure very well and be good at problem-solving. It’s really just a willingness to do a lot of hard work.”

Year’s Training Required

Strike team personnel spend four years with the unit, with the first year to year and a half devoted to training.

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“The Coast Guard provides some of the training, EPA handles other portions and private industry also has some classes we attend,” Rome said.

Team members learn which equipment to wear and use in different situations, according to Rome. They are also taught to operate sophisticated instruments and accurately interpret the information they provide. The members also are taught to do basic damage-site assessments, including fire and toxicity potential and the possible impact of a damage site on the surrounding environment.

Not all of the knowledge, Rome says, comes from a classroom, however. Lt. Ramirez, who is commanding the Anaheim response unit, ran a similar operation in the Los Angeles County community of Sun Valley just last April.

Although the strike teams were originally intended to respond to ocean and estuary contaminations, such as oil spills, most of the training is now directed toward handling chemical spills on land.

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“Right now we’re concentrating on hazardous waste site cleanups because there’s just not that many ocean spills, particularly out here on the West Coast,” Rome said.

Foreign Governments Aided

Still, the strike teams have kept their skills in fighting oil spills sharp by responding to requests for assistance from foreign governments.

When Mexico’s Ixtoc I offshore well ruptured in 1979 and dumped more than 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Rome’s team went to the site to handle cleanup and containment while the Atlantic and Gulf coast units were deployed to protect the Texas and Louisiana shorelines.

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The teams have also responded to oil tanker wrecks in Singapore, Turkey and the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America, as well as cleaning up spills caused by the Iran-Iraq war.

In Anaheim, Rome said, the team is working in conjunction with an EPA coordinator overseeing the operation.

“Our main function normally is to work with the private contractor hired by EPA to do the cleanup,” he said. “We’ll make sure the people on the site are adequately protected, we’ll continuously monitor the site and keep track of the product inventory to make sure no incompatible chemicals get mixed together.” The team will remain on site until the fire is out and the chemicals have been removed. Then the members will pack up and return to their base to await the next call.

While the strike team is viewed as an elite unit by those on the outside, that’s not the case with it’s members.

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“Basically we’re just Coast Guard,” Rome said. “We get called in to do the job we can and to help out an organization that needs us.”


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