MAHONING VALLEY HazMat expands its focus, coverage
One official said it's the next step in the evolution of the HazMat response team.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- They won't wear three-cornered hats and carry muskets, but the Mahoning County HazMat team hopes to take a minuteman approach to its training.
No longer restricted to cleaning up chemical spills on Mahoning Valley freeways, the team has expanded its focus in recent years to include various types of victim rescues.
And in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it is trying to expand again with creation of an urban search-and-rescue unit.
That's a squad that finds people in collapsed buildings, said Walter Duzzny, executive director of the county Emergency Management Agency.
"This is the next step in the evolution of the team," said HazMat Lt. Silverio Caggiano.
The HazMat team is an arm of the emergency management agency and was formed in 1987 because of a growing number of chemical spills on local highways, Duzzny said.
But in recent years, safety improvements by trucking companies have significantly reduced the number of serious spills, and local fire departments are better able to handle small spills without calling the HazMat team, Duzzny said.
That's allowed the team to expand its focus and train for such events as rescuing people in high or confined spaces.
Terrorism: And with the growing threat of terrorism creeping closer to home, the team is prepared to respond to matters involving weapons of mass destruction.
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City showed yet another need -- one for a team that can rescue people from collapsed buildings. Such a program is called urban search and rescue, Caggiano said.
HazMat Chief Ted Everett said such a unit was first discussed in 1995 but never got off the ground. The recent terrorist attacks and threats brought it off the back burner.
Though it's unlikely that terrorists would target buildings in Mahoning County, buildings here still are vulnerable to tornadoes and the simple process of aging that could weaken their structural supports and eventually cause them to fall, Caggiano said.
"The first six hours in a situation like that is critical," he said, noting that's when some 90 percent of "salvageable victims" are located and rescued.
The only urban search-and-rescue team in Ohio is based in Dayton. It would take four hours for that team to mobilize and get here, leaving only two hours in the critical six-hour window, Caggiano said.
He said about 75 people are needed to staff a full urban search-and-rescue team, with another 75 or so for backup.
Here's the plan: Duzzny and Caggiano said there's no way that many people can be fielded and trained locally, so they're planning a scaled-down version patterned after the Dayton program.
"It's a minuteman concept," Duzzny said. "Our team would go into a situation, initiate some action and hold down the fort until the cavalry can get there."
So far, about 45 people have signed up to train for the new unit, Caggiano said. That includes all 22 of the HazMat team's members and 23 others from local fire departments. There's still room for more if others want to join the volunteer unit.
The new recruits would have to first be trained to become HazMat technicians and get caught up on other rescue techniques the team has already learned.
Then when they're all at the same level of training, the entire team would move forward together with urban search-and-rescue training, Caggiano said.
Boardman Fire Chief James Dorman, president of the HazMat policy board, said the board wants to see how many people are willing to actually stick with the program before giving its approval to form a rescue team.
"As far as the board is concerned, this is in a very preliminary stage," Dorman said. "We're just asking them to start showing us where the interest is."
Duzzny said he's pleased with the progress that's been made so far.
"As an agency, we are constantly raising the bar," he said.
Caggiano said he's hoping to build a team that will be authorized to respond all over Northeast Ohio, not just locally.