Brunswick County emergency responders participate in hazardous waste exercise

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South Port Fire Fighter
A Southport firefighter takes a moment to catch his breath during the exercise. Photos by James Mieczkowski.

What would happen if an accident caused nuclear waste to spill near Sunny Point?

This is a question Brunswick County Emergency Service personnel wanted to be sure they were prepared to handle, and the reason behind hosting a full-scale hazardous materials exercise outside of the Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point facility near Southport on Tuesday night.

“When they get the call, they’re acting as if this were a real situation,” said Scott Garner, fire marshall for Brunswick County, as he explained the situation on which emergency response personnel were going to be tested.

The simulated situation was an incident involving a tractor-trailer running into a railway car that contained hazardous materials coming from Sunny Point.

Firefighters from the Sunny Point Fire Department—containing a division specifically trained to respond to hazardous waste incidents—reported to the scene and worked along side the Southport Fire Department to assess the situation, create a command center, and conduct a procedure to evacuate any victims of the accident and contain the damage.

Once hazmat crews were able to report to the scene and evacuate the victims, they would be treated by Brunswick County EMS who would transport the victims to the nearest trauma center. In this situation, the two young adult male victims were taken to Dosher Hospital, with the idea that the New Hanover Regional Medical Center would be inaccessible due to causeway traffic leading up to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

According to Garner, the amount of stress placed on the responders’ bodies while in a hazmat suit is immense. Reporting to a scene with hazardous waste requires the hazmat team to first go through a pre-entry vital check along with ingesting at least a liter of water before suiting up. Once fitted in the suit, they have a 30-minute window until they must swap out with another team, with two back-up teams on stand-by to alternate in those 30-minute windows.

When the hazmat responders come back from the scene to the mobile command center, they are washed down in the full suits, which are then disposed of, and undergo another check of their vitals along with mandatory hydration.

While the exercise only lasted four hours, hazmat responses can sometimes last as long as 12 hours, depending on the severity of the situation.

“We’ve had numerous hazardous materials incidents,” said Garner. “It’s not uncommon or unheard of but we’re very fortunate to have the Sunny Point Fire Department with the hazmat team that they have. They work very closely with the county and, luckily, we have not had any major incidents.”

Brunswick County participates in full-scale exercises about twice a year, which take about six months to plan.

“These types of trainings are invaluable. You never know what’s going to happen and you’re putting all your tools out there—from the ladders to the hazmat suits—and everything that you do is just like the real incident.”

Garner also stressed the importance of the county’s CodeRED System. When a hazardous material incident takes place, Brunswick County utilizes a mass notification system to call, text and email individuals with important information.

For more information on the Brunswick County CodeRED System, and to sign up for the free service, visit the website here.

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James Mieczkowski is a news reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at james.m@portcitydaily.com On Twitter: @mieczkowskiPCD