Viscous globs of syrup and molasses oozed down the bright yellow plastic hood of four firefighter recruits preparing to undergo decontamination training at the county fire academy last week.
Reaching up with one finger, Capt. Steve Schultz carefully drew a broad smiley face across one recruit’s hazardous materials mask. Fellow instructor Lt. Matt Wilby grabbed a shaker full of cinnamon and began powdering the other students in the group outside the public safety training facility off Reichs Ford Road. As the cloud of spice settled, a sweet, cloying scent permeated the air.
“Recruit?” Schultz said, stepping back to admire his handiwork.
“Yes, sir?” came the muffled response as the recruit did his best to snap to attention under the bulky plastic suit sealed over an equally cumbersome breathing apparatus.
“You smell delicious!” Schultz said, roaring with laughter as he and Wilby lined the recruits up outside the door to the facility’s training bay.
“Like Grandma’s kitchen!” the other instructor chimed in, licking his fingers clean after coating the last recruit in the sticky mix.
The rest of the class waited inside, most wearing their own hazmat suits with carefully wrapped sections of duct tape around the wrists, ankles and other seams. Having spent the previous day acclimating themselves to moving around in the tightly sealed suits, the recruits of Class 21 were learning how to thoroughly clean and decontaminate their teammates after a hazardous materials call, Schultz said.
“So the idea is we make it as ‘real world’ as we possibly can without obviously exposing them to hazardous materials,” the captain said, explaining the gooey mess covering the members of the entry team in the training scenario. “... It’s designed to represent the fact that a lot of our hazardous materials aren’t the straightforward consistency of water. They’re very sticky, heavy and persistent.”
The most common contaminants firefighters are exposed to are relatively small amounts of diesel fuel or motor oil after a crash. But, sometimes, a chemical spill or an emergency at one of the county’s water treatment plants can put teams in contact with more dangerous chemicals.
Still, leaks or spills that necessitate a true hazmat response like the one the recruits were training for last week are relatively rare in Frederick County, said Lt. Mike Webb, the class’s lead instructor.
“Hazmat incidences are low-frequency, high-risk events. ... This would be to simulate something like a chlorine leak, and the last one I know of in the field was at the wastewater treatment plant, I believe, on New Design Road,” Webb said.
In the training bay, several recruits held scrubbing brushes and shower nozzles next to buckets of soapy water set down on either side of a line of inflatable kiddie pools.
As the first member of the practice entry team stepped into the “warm zone” to be hosed off, his remaining three teammates waited patiently in the simulated “hot zone.”
“Each one of these pools is designed to eliminate that much more of the hazardous material from their person,” Schultz said, explaining the pools. “So you’ll see them go from one station to the next until, at the end of this line, we have a recruit who is playing the role of the [decontamination] group supervisor.”
The group supervisor makes sure the line moves quickly and efficiently — the entry team should be cleaned before their air tanks run empty. The supervisor was also responsible for making sure each entry team member was sufficiently decontaminated before stepping into the clean “cold zone,” Schultz said.
Once each team member was finished with the third and final pool in the warm zone, a final group of recruits sat them down for the true test of the decontamination team’s work, Schultz said.
As part of their training, the recruits were given instruction earlier in the week on how to properly dress and seal their hazmat suits, including the use of duct tape to close off seams around their wrists, ankles and other exposed seams.
“And if they didn’t do a good job taping them up, it’ll allow crevices that will trap the ‘hazardous materials’ during the decon process,” Schultz said. He kept a keen eye on the first of the recruits to leave the warm zone and begin the dress-down process.
“So they’ll get to the end and go, ‘Man, we did a great job! These guys are all clean. There’s nothing left on them!’ ... Until they start taking the tape off and see it’s full of cinnamon,” Schultz said with a smile. “So it’s designed to challenge them to do a really good job in the cleaning process.”