Disaster training brings emergency to life

First responders drill for worst-case scenario


No one ever hopes to use the skills they develop under federal guidelines by the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), but if the worst happens, they will be ready. Area first responders—police, fire, paramedics and more—fight explosions, toxic disasters, potentially fatal injuries and other potential catastrophes to be ready for anything.

Sue Barthels arranges the volunteers and rescue personnel who have been rotating through potentially dangerous industry locations for years. She said it is a chance to practice skills and review protocols in potentially hazardous materials situations. “It is the equivalent of running a drill,” she described.

This year’s spring practice was held at Reisters Grower Services in Sparta. Emergency responders included Rockford Ambulance.

Barthels said the practices are required by federal mandate and are taken very seriously. She said every site in Kent County that houses potentially hazardous materials has been evaluated and has an emergency plan in place should a disaster occur. Reisters provides farm chemicals and so qualifies as a potential hazardous material site.

LEPC conducts the drills once a year and has been since 1989. This spring’s took place in May and included 110 people including 10 volunteer “victims.” The victims are coached prior to the incident, and include make-up and “injuries” consistent with the disaster scenario.

Barthels said the training has come in use in the county for several hazardous materials incidents, including issues with refrigeration ammonia that resulted in no injuries. In Kent County there are 243 locations that have extremely hazardous materials, and LEPC has a plan for every one.

The Hazardous Materials Response Team operates out of Grand Rapids, but different groups participate in the scene to hone protocol. Depending on location, local agencies participate as they would should a real incident occur. Incident training has taken place at Ten Mile Road and Alpine Avenue, and the Sparta Airport. Volunteer emergency personnel, such as members of the Civil Emergency Response Team (CERTS), the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services (RACES) and others have also participated, as they would in a real emergency.

“What is important here is a rural fire department got a chance to practice,” said Tom Boyle, assistant director of engineering for Kent County, who was present as a LEPC board member.

The 247 hazardous materials sites in the county do not include the City of Grand Rapids, which has its own training process. Boyle said hazardous material can be anything from the sulfuric acid in a hi-low battery to chemical suppliers.

“The practice helps us learn to know each other and what to expect from each other,” Boyle said. “I’m a firm believer in practice, practice, practice.”

Boyle said he was very impressed with the operation, from the Walker Fire Department Decontamination tent to the efficient actions of firefighters who worked quickly to clean “victims” of their chemical exposure. “These guys really have their act together.”


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