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Toxic Lesson: It Takes Money and Expertise

Times Staff Writer

Capt. Michael Rohde, head of the Orange County Fire Department’s hazardous materials response team, learned a valuable lesson during the fire in an Anaheim warehouse where potentially lethal chemicals were stored: Expertise is essential in dealing with such a situation, and so is money.

After nearly 36 hours of throwing everything he had at the fire in an attempt to gain control, there came a point when Rohde knew he would need help. So, an Environmental Protection Agency strike team was called in.

On Wednesday, as the operation at the Larry Fricker Co. on State College Boulevard entered the mop-up stage, Rohde explained that the essential difference between the federal unit and the local teams from his department and Anaheim and Huntington Beach boiled down to dollars and cents.

“We’re geared up probably better than any other county in the state, if not in the country,” said Rohde in explaining that local resources, in both manpower and equipment, had been exhausted after nearly two days of continuously dealing with the fire.

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On the other hand, he said, the EPA’s unit, which is made up of Coast Guard personnel and draws part of its budget from the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, “can rely on federal funds. They have almost limitless resources.”

According to Rhode, the county has spent between $300,000 and $400,000 since his unit was created two years ago. The federal team, based at Hamilton Air Force Base north of San Francisco, has nearly $20 million worth of equipment alone.

Rhode also pointed out that the local hazardous materials units pattern their training and operations on those used by the federal strike team, which has been in operation since 1973. Still, he said, the EPA personnel were able to provide a specialized knowledge, particularly through a sophisticated computer they bring with them.

Constant Chemical Reactions

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“We were operating in an environment of almost constant chemical reactions; our people were being bathed in chemicals, any one of which could have been a deadly combination,” he said. “We really needed EPA’s support, their scientific backup that enables them to predict just what’s going to happen.”

While acknowledging that money makes a difference between the local and federal units, Darrel Hartshorn, a division chief with the Anaheim Fire Department and driving force behind that agency’s new hazardous materials team, said experience is also a key factor.

“These guys do have a greater depth of knowledge than we do; they’ve done a lot more of this,” he said. “Our teams are a lot like paramedics. They can take care of a situation initially, but they are not going to perform heart surgery.”

To illustrate a lack of resources at the local level, Hartshorn explained that one operation involving the Fricker Co. fire had to be delayed three hours because the hazardous materials teams didn’t have an adequate supply of gloves.

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Still, the local units drew high marks for efforts.

“We were all impressed with how well they worked,” said Phillip Edelman, medical director of the poison center at UCI Medical Center. “Everything ran very smoothly.”

Tom Severino, the EPA’s on-site coordinator, said: “They did an excellent job. I’ve been around a lot of areas of California and the West and they’re as good as any and better than most.”


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