JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- A shiny new piece of life-saving equipment sits in an engine bay at Fire Station 5 on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston waiting for a chance to see action. The 30-foot "tool box on wheels" has four tons of carrying capacity, four air tanks for refilling bottles used for breathing air, a 15-foot light mast that can provide 6,000 watts of light, and a generator that can put out 25,000 watts of power.
The new hazmat apparatus, purchased in an effort to consolidate hazmat services across JBSA and minimize resources, will save the base the high maintenance fees and space utilized by duplicate equipment that was previously assigned to three separate locations.
"We had lots of equipment that was taking up storage space and was not being used," said Lawrence M. Salinas, lead firefighter and emergency medical technician, JBSA-Fort Sam Houston. "In 2018, we decided to analyze what would be needed in most probable scenarios and determined what equipment we needed to keep or invest in."
Before consolidating capabilities, JBSA had 120 protective suits that had to be inspected, maintained and replaced regularly. Now, Salinas said they have 40.
"The suits have to be maintained and tested annually, and completing these checks on 120 could take a whole month," he said. "Now, it does not take nearly as long, and they are all in one place."
There was also the additional time and expense it took to inspect and maintain hazmat equipment at three separate locations. With the consolidation, the team was able to reduce the number of multi-gas, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive detectors, Salinas said.
During the consolidation, the team considered response times as well.
"The new hazmat response vehicle will deploy to incidents in a caravan with a fire engine, which does improve response times," Salinas said, noting that the fire truck with lights and sirens is able to traverse through dense traffic fairly quickly due to being much more visible.
Unlike the previous hazmat trailer, the new apparatus will also hold more of the equipment that may be needed during a response.
"We take tools, hoses, water, protective gear; anything we might need at any JBSA location," Salinas said. "Like now, with the coronavirus, we are ensuring we have extra suits in case something happens where we need to provide for a mass, large-scale response. We have equipment beyond the respirators. We have full suits to protect the skin that are splash resistant, and others that are vapor resistant."
Another vital part of the JBSA hazmat response team are the partners who respond with them.
"We have a partnership with JBSA Bio-Environmental services, Industrial Hygiene, and Emergency Management. They respond to every incident that we do, with the specialized detectors assigned to their service," Salinas said.
"We also train with them annually, sharing information and teaching each other the skills needed for using all the hazmat equipment."
The JBSA hazmat team also coordinates and communicates regularly with local sources responsible for activities and resources that have the potential to cause hazardous material incidents in close proximity to San Antonio military installations.
"The likelihood is there that we could be called off base for a hazmat response," said Jason Stumbaugh, a JBSA firefighter. "The train tracks are right here. If there is an incident, we might be able to communicate information about the location to the railroad and respond if needed." The team completed training with Union Pacific railroad personnel last year to prepare for just such an incident.
Salinas said the members of the JBSA hazmat team are prepared for most any emergency, and while all of them are firefighters, he explained that a hazmat response is very different than the response calls they usually receive, such as Emergency Medical Services and structural emergencies.
"Often, with hazmat responses you don't know what you are going to find when you arrive on scene," he said. "This is very different than responding to a fire since there is a much more calculated and methodical approach."
"When you arrive at a fire, what you have is obvious. If it is a structural fire, you lay down hoses and put on the needed gear immediately," Salinas said. "With hazmat, you have to stop, isolate, deny entry, evacuate, turn off ventilation systems, and determine what hazardous materials could be there. There is also decontamination, which will be needed and must be performed before any patient or responder leaves the scene."
No matter the call, having the needed equipment and being adequately prepared for all types of hazardous material emergencies can ensure the safety of all involved.
"The hazards and potential of a possible hazmat are always evolving," Salinas said. "A great emphasis is placed on preparation, training and crew cohesion. This not only helps keep people safe, but our first responders as well."