Researched and written by Julie Tamaki / Los Angeles Times

In their bulky suits they look about as agile as the Michelin Man. But the Los Angeles City Fire Department's two hazardous Materials Task Forces perform delicate work, Identifying chemical spills and if necessary, neutralizing them. Often the goal is to stabilize a situation until a private cleanup company can mop up the mess.

One 14-member task force is based in Van Nuys, the other in downtown Los Angeles. Two additional standby squads--located in Hollywood and San Pedro-- also respond to hazardous material calls, but do not have the full complement of firefighters trained to handle emergencies that range from leaky trucks carrying solvents to spills at factories working with acids.

The principal goals are simple: Identify the substance as quickly as possible and minimize risks to themselves, the public and the environment. Their tools range from hightech gadgets to ordinary dish soap.


It takes a firefighter about 20 minutes to put on more than 60 pounds of protective clothing and equipment over a navy blue uniform made of Nomex, a highly fire resistant fabric. Depending on the chemicals involved, the firefighters add over their uniform:

The red Nomex jumpsuit

Three pairs of gloves

Two pairs of boots

Hour long air tank

Final protective suit


Working in the suits is so stressful that firefighters' vital signs are monitored before and after they have dressed. The suits retain heat and on hot days it is possible for a firefighter's gloves to fill up to the forearms with water from perspiration.



When entry teams must be sent in to take air or liquid samples to identify a substance they use some of these tools:

1. Liquid sampling pump

2. Air sampling tube

3. GX-4000 sampling device monitors air for flammability or explosives

4. PH paper, about the length of a bandage, but half the width, has different colors and is dipped in a substance to check acidity.


Other ways to identify contaminants and assess how to control them:

* interviews: Witnesses may provide useful information.

* Library: The Hazmat crew's truck contains numerous books and reports on industrial chemicals and materials. The crew can access databases through its library computer.

* Hot lines, Sometimes firefighters employ the help of an industrywide hot line or they call he chemical manufacturer directly, which sometimes best knows how to contain substance. Several major manufacturers maintain 24-hour emergency hot lines.

* Emergency plans: Hazmat crews often consult action plans businesses are required by law to draw up if they handle hazardous materials. Such businesses also log the types of chemicals on their grounds and information about them.


* Hazardous Material Squad: A four-member team staffing the truck containing the library and most hazmat equipment. Deployed as first response to investigate a possible hazardous spill.

* Hazardous Material Task Force: A 14-member team, including the squad, a truck company and two-piece engine company. Sent to a known hazardous material scene.

* Hazardous Material Response: Requested for worst-case scenarios. The 23-member response includes a task force, a paramedic rescue unit, a paramedic engine company and tow supervisors--a captain to oversee medical treatment and a battalion chief in charge of the overall operation.



D. DEPLOYING THE TEAM (1) The first company captain establishes a perimeter and attempts to identify the substance. If there is a threat to the public or environment, or if it's an unknown substance captain requests help.

(2) Task Force Arrives: Task force establishes a command post, initially attempts to identify spill through inverviews and research.

(3) Preparing to Enter: If the crew is unable to identify the chemical of the substance is posing a threat, a two-member entry team suits up. A dresser assists, making sure the suits are secured and breathing apparatuses are properly hooked up.

(4) Inspecting the Spill: With a captain directing the operation from the perimeter of the contamination reduction zone, the entry team heads in, communicating through microphones in their masks. As a precaution, firefighters are allowed to stay in their suits for only 20 minutes. Captain ticks off the minutes, alerting them when their time is up.

(5) Testing: Entry team sets to work. To activate his microphone, a firefighter must use his elbow to press a button on the side of his suit. The suits are practically soundproof, so the team uses hand signals or their microphones to communicate.

(6) Backup Team Gears Up: As the first entry team inspects the spill, a second team enters the perimeter, prepared to serve as a backup.

(7) A Watchful Eye: A fifth team member also dressed in protective gear, the monitor, assists the first team and serves as a backup to the second. Also responsible for maintaining eye contact with entry team members or helping them move equipment.

(8) Sorting Data: Entry team feeds back information to the command post, where a captain consults the firefighter in the library.

(9) Planning the Attack: The supervising captain has final say over how to resolve a situation. he may order the team to neutralize the chemical, to plug a leak or any of several options. Although the team may control a spill, the company responsible is obligated to handle the cleanup. The Los Angeles County health Department performs the final cleanup if the responsible party cannot be identified.


E. DECONTAMINATING THE TEAM A "decon manager" directs the lengthy process of decontaminating the entry team, overseeing the process and all equipment, including four pools like the one pictured. The manager also oversees the "umbilical air line," a tube hooked up the the protective suits to cool off the entry team after it leaves the hot zone.


1. The monitor washes and rinses the entry team in the first "decon" pool, located behind the hot line.


2. The monitor subsequently peels off the entry team's gloves once they have crossed the hot line.


3. The handler and rinser wash and rinse the suits of the entry team and the monitor as they pass through as many as three additional decon pools.


4. With the aid of the "bagger," the entry team and monitor literally step inside individual bags and peel off their suits. Once sealed inside the bags, the suits are either carted off for more cleaning or returned to the station where they are hung out to dry.

* Simple as Soap

What's the best way to neutralize an acid? You're soaking in it. Firefighters say Palmolive dish soap and a little water is the most effective solution for decontaminating their hazmat suits. Other solutions have been tried, they say, but are not as effective as Palmolive.

Source: Los Angeles City Fire Department

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