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Vol. LVIII, No. 18
September 8, 2006

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NIH Fire Department Adds Hazmat to Pact with County

When someone in Montgomery County calls for fire fighters, a 911 dispatcher immediately sends help from any of several local fire stations to the scene. In what is called a mutual aid agreement, equipment can respond from any firehouse in the county, including federal stations like Walter Reed, National Naval Medical Center and NIH. Once first responders are on the scene, the squads look to the most experienced and best-trained team to take the lead and clear the problem. The agreement is the same for all emergency services — for example, ambulance, fire, hazardous materials ("hazmat") or tower ladder/rescue. Early this year, the NIH Fire Department became the lead team for resolving critical incidents involving hazmat that occur in off-campus laboratory facilities.

"Chief [Gary] Hess decided NIH should play a more involved role in these types of situations," explained Ken Chaplin, assistant chief of the NIH Fire Department. "We have such a wide variety of situations we deal with here on campus that everyone is cross-trained already in all of the services — fire fighting, emergency medical technicians and hazmat. We're a pretty diversely trained group. It just made sense for us to coordinate things between the institutes involved in the off-campus facilities and the county resources. [The agreement] reduces the amount of people and resources to only what is really needed to clear up the problem. It also reduces the time that [incident-affected] NIH personnel are away from their labs and work areas."

The NIH Fire Department responds to about 2,500 emergency calls annually. Approximately 400 of those are hazmat-related. NIH has labs in seven off-campus facilities. Chaplin says a minimum of 10 fire fighter/technicians are on duty at the firehouse at any time. Although it's likely that just a four-person team would be sent initially to an off-campus hazmat emergency, all 10 staff on duty are hazmat-technician/specialist trained.

The recent upgrade to the aid agreement won't change procedures at all, Chaplin explains. With NIH located in the heart of Montgomery County, NIH's fire department has always been on call for primary dispatch to hazmat incidents along with all other county units and all federal stations in the vicinity. [Besides NIH, Walter Reed and Navy Medical, other government stations nearby include Naval Surface Warfare Center-Carderock and National Institute of Standards and Technology.]

"Coordination is the biggest reason for updating the agreement formally," he concluded. "We've basically been responding first anyway, because we are very familiar with handling these types of lab incidents."