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Groups plan hazmat meet-up

At a recent meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, Altoona Fire Chief Tim Hileman told representatives of member organizations that store hazardous chemicals that he doesn’t want to make their acquaintance for the first time at 2 a.m.

Hileman wasn’t being rude: “at 2 a.m.” was a metaphor for a hazardous materials crisis — the kind that would dictate a visit to those organizations’ facilities by Hileman, who, as head of the city’s fire department, is also head of the Blair County hazmat team.

To help ensure that such a first meeting doesn’t occur during an emergency, the hazmat team and the Blair County Department of Emergency Services are holding a workshop in March that will emphasize getting acquainted.

He’s experienced such first meetings during crises, and they aren’t ideal, Hileman said.

Asked to elaborate, however, he provided an example of a case in which familiarity helped things go smoothly.

It was an ammonia leak caused by a broken seal in refrigeration piping at the Sheetz distribution facility in Claysburg, several years ago.

Fortunately, the hazmat team had trained frequently with facility employees, Hileman said.

“We (were) as familiar with that place as with any in the county,” he said. “(And) we knew what each others’ capabilities were.”

The team and the company dealt with the problem by forming a contingent comprising both team members and employees, all fully encapsulated in hazmat suits, with employees helping guide team members to the source of the problem, “because they knew their facility better than we did,” Hileman said.

That was especially important, given the “sensory deprivation” that wearers of such suits experience, he said.

When they arrived at the problem site, the team members clamped a rubber boot over the leak.

That held until workers summoned by the company showed up to make a permanent repair.

The hazmat team is similarly familiar with the Albemarle Corp. chemical plant in Tyrone and the Appvion paper mill in Roaring Spring, Hileman said.

The planned workshop at the Blair County Convention Center will be a tabletop version of an annual event that normally features an acted-out scenario, according to Hileman.

It will involve three “modules” — a presentation of emergency plans by facilities, so that first responders know what to expect if they must enter those facilities in emergencies; questioning of facility managers by first responders to get more clarity about the plans; and feedback from first responders designed to correct deficiencies in the plans, Hileman said.

If a plan calls for a hazmat response that requires equipment the team lacks, the plan needs to be adjusted to reflect an alternative solution, Hileman said.

There may be some “proprietary” information the organizations are reluctant to share with first responders, and that’s OK, Hileman indicated.

“What you feel comfortable with,” he said.

Both for-profit and nonprofit organizations can participate, Hileman said.

The Altoona Water Authority, which uses a variety of water treatment chemicals, could be a participant, as could Penn State Altoona, which operates chemistry labs, said LEPC Chairman Tim Rea.

“We want it to be all-inclusive,” Hileman said.

A grant is expected to help pay for the workshop, Hileman said.

“It’s a good chance for community outreach,” Hileman said.

Next year, there will be a “functional exercise” at one of the facilities to test its plan, Hileman said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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