Cuts hit hazmat response teams

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Kalispell firefighters Soren Koetter and Josiah Mooney approach an illicit chemical dump in protective gear at the Green Box site in Lakeside on Wednesday, October 21. The chemical was found to be a diluted pesticide which was able to be mitigated. The Kalispell Fire Department Hazmat team is one of six regional teams in the state. According to Assistant Fire Chief Jon Campbell, this level of gear may appear to be an “abundance of caution” but it is necessary for the safety of the responders. “We don’t know what this chemical is. All we know is someone didn’t want to dump it down their drains or on their property.” (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

A budget cut during last year’s regular legislative session could threaten Montana’s ability to handle hazardous material (hazmat) emergencies.

Oil spills, gas leaks, and “suspicious white powder” scares require more equipment and expertise than many fire departments can muster. For these incidents, the Montana Department of Military Affairs’ Disaster and Emergency Services Division maintains six State Hazardous Material Incident Response Teams (SHMIRT), composed of at least eight specially trained and equipped local firefighters, around the state.

According to Capt. Ryan Finnegan, public information officer for Disaster and Emergency Services (DES), these teams lost their $260,000 in funding last year, half in DES cuts and half in matching federal grants (the teams are still eligible for $360,000 in equipment funding from a Department of Homeland Security grant).

The cuts were split evenly between the six units. Local officials are still determining how they’ll impact Northwest Montana’s team, based with the Kalispell Fire Department. But Assistant Fire Chief Jon Campbell sees reduced services ahead.

“When funding is cut, the hard reality is services suffer,” he told the Daily Inter Lake.

While local first responders can help evacuate and secure a hazmat site, the six SHMIRT teams — based in Kalispell, Missoula, Great Falls, Billings, Bozeman, and Helena — hold the technician-level certification required by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration for directly handling deadly substances and stopping releases. The state requires the teams to conduct at least one joint hazmat exercise each year.

Campbell says this practice boosts preparedness for large-scale disasters, such as a 1996 chlorine leak near Missoula, that require a response from multiple teams. But he said budget cuts would “eliminate the availability of those personnel to leave their jurisdictions to train with another team.”

“I have six guys on duty today,” he explained on Monday. If it were time for their regional training, he claimed, Kalispell wouldn’t have funding to fill their local positions while they left to train, or send off-duty personnel to complete the hazmat training.

A loss of state funding could also keep the team from testing and replacing their suits, masks, batteries, and chemical kits – gear they’ll rely on in an emergency.

“The potential implication of these cuts is the loss of a technical-level response team in this corner of the state,” Campbell explained.

He said that he and his colleagues are still figuring out what could happen in that situation. But the first responders who help technicians are likely to find themselves less prepared.

“We’d be able to assess the situation, make some identifications, set up protection zones,” explained Whitefish Fire Chief Joe Page, “and then we’d be waiting for hazmat technicians to come in and deal with the actual spill.”

“Typically every year we try to make sure we get a refresher training” with the Kalispell SHMIRT team, he said. “Jon and his team provide a lot of that help for us.”

Campbell stressed that “it’s our desire to provide that service, [but] how long and to what extent we’ll be able to do that remains a question.”

“If we were to receive a request for training right now from the [local] response team, we may not be able to fulfill it based on our funding.”

Elsewhere in Montana, the hazmat-response web is already fraying. Last week, the Clark Fork Valley Press reported that the Plains-Paradise Rural Fire Department and Plains Volunteer Fire Department, both of which work with Missoula’s team, had reduced a planned two-day training session to just eight hours.

“Each of those six fire departments is going to be handling these cuts in a potentially different way,” Campbell predicted. Kalispell’s, he said, doesn’t have “a specific plan that we are perscribing to at the moment.”

Looking to the budget-making process for Kalispell’s 2019 fiscal year, he said that “we’re considering adjusting line items to spend for hazmat response.”

“Part of our process will be to add an element to the fire department budget and request to see if the city will fund it so we don’t lose our capability within the city limits.”

City Manager Doug Russell could not be reached for comment.

Another possibility, Campbell said, would be “no longer offering ourselves as a state asset,” as one of the six regional teams.

Whatever happens, both he and Page foresee trouble for Flathead’s first responders.

“These are events that we call low-frequency, high-risk,” Page explained. “Maintaining the strong training is important because the risks are so high on the operation.”

If Kalispell’s hazmat response capacity gets scaled back, he predicts that Whitefish could budget for training, “but the emergency-response [impact] is gonna be huge.”

In his view, because a hazmat incident is “such a low-frequency event...it’s not high on a lot of people’s radars.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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