A methamphetamine lab, an outbreak of anthrax and a hazardous material spill are all possible scenarios locally.
Time is of the essence when responding to a hazardous material incident. Acting quickly helps to eliminate potential exposure of harmful materials to both the public and environment at large, said Colorado State Patrol HAZMAT technician Travis Randolph.
“Without the training, we would have to wait for a certified team to show up,” Randolph said. “The next closest team is in Durango.”
Randolph worked with the Cortez Fire Protection District last week to recertify the department’s HAZMAT responders.
“Cortez is a major hub of hazardous materials coming into Southwest Colorado,” he said.
On average, close to 1,000 truckers transport their loads through Cortez along U.S. 160 and U.S. 491 every 24 hours. Up to 150 of those trucks carry a HAZMAT load, mostly contain gasoline, diesel or propane.
The greatest lesson to teach a HAZMAT responder is “stay back and identify,” explained Cortez Fire Protection District Chief Jeff Vandevoorde. He added knowing what gas, liquid or solid hazardous material is on scene and ensuring enough manpower is available to properly clean up a site are crucial.
“There are hundreds of different types of scenarios that you could run into,” he said. “It’s so easy to get into a situation and become a victim yourself.”
One line of defense for responders is an $800 blue tarp type suit with a plastic shield over the face. The suits can only be worn once.
Another safety precaution is communication.
“You have to know who you’re working with,” Randolph said. “Hand signals and body language are key.”
A group of about a dozen Montezuma-Cortez High School students also participated in the HAZMAT training last week.
“The students really enjoyed and learned from the opportunity to put on the suits and practice with the HAZMAT props,” said Lori Mott, Colorado’s Career Technical Education Teacher of the Year.
In addition to being a high school teacher, Mott is also a volunteer firefighter. She loves the physical and mental challenges firefighting affords, which takes her out of her own comfort zone, she said.
“You never know what kind of call you are going to go on,” Mott explained.
Mott has taught fire science, first responder and community emergency response courses for the past seven years at the Montezuma-Cortez High School.
“The students love the hands on experiences,” she said. “They get to work with actual fire fighters.”
The training in high school helps prepare students for a number of potential careers while earning college credit at the same time. Many students who have previously graduated now serve as volunteer fire fighters across Montezuma County.
“We’re not only training students for a career, but we’re also teaching them to serve their community,” Mott said.