Article by David Digregorio, Massachusetts Department of Fire Services - Director, Hazardous Materials Response
Photos and video by Public Safety Multimedia
An abandoned vessel is reported adrift off the coast of Cape Cod. Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Southeast board the vessel and investigate. Two dead victims are found and a further search of the vessel reveals what appears to be a clandestine laboratory in the galley. As Coast Guard personnel approach the lab, one of their chemical detection meters alarms and they evacuate the vessel. The local fire department is notified and calls for a hazmat response team.
Team leaders establish communications plans, build equipment loadout plans, and assign personnel to vessels or land-based assignments. Once at sea, the team meters the perimeter of the suspect vessel, boards and initiates a full search, conducts a hazard risk assessment, verifies the victims are dead and communicates this information to land and sea-based command and control.
This may sound like the beginning of a very good movie or the start of a very bad day. In reality, the scenario is a joint maritime exercise with the Department of Fire Services (DFS) Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Division (Hazmat) Maritime Incident Response Team (MIRT), the Technical Support Unit (TSU) and several other fire service and agency partners.
The exercise took place in Buzzards Bay Harbor on June 24, 2016. Participating agencies included the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the USCG Sector Southeast, the Massachusetts State Police Maritime Unit, the Wareham, Bourne, Sandwich, and New Bedford Fire Departments, the Massachusetts National Guard 1st Civil Support Team and the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.
MIRT is a specialty team of the state Hazmat Response Teams and was created to meet chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) capability gaps identified during and after a 2010 maritime incident in New Bedford Harbor. Over the past six years, the department has selected and trained specialists from the three hazmat district teams that serve Massachusetts coastal regions.
Maritime CBRN responses are complex and no defined capability previously existed, so the Mass. Hazmat MIRT conducted substantial research and development to define and operationalize unique capabilities and has worked with its response partners to incorporate capabilities into response planning.
The Technical Support Unit (TSU) of the state hazmat teams is a small group of specialists who operate highly complex communications, wide area chemical and radiological detection systems and plume modeling for the hazmat teams. The unit augments district and other specialty teams as needed on complex incidents. It includes members from each of the six state hazmat response teams.
The June exercise was the first, full-scale exercise of its kind in Massachusetts waters. It allowed the MIRT and TSU to practice skills including: assigning personnel and equipment to the incident, seaside vessel to vessel boarding, vessel to vessel and vessel to land communications, maneuvering on board while wearing hazmat protection, and recognition and potential mitigation of a clandestine lab. Those viewing the exercise included Undersecretary of Homeland Security Patrick McMurray, State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey,
Commanders of the MA and NH Civil Support Teams and various intra- and interagency partners. Although well-equipped to respond to incidents at sea, the MIRT must rely on relationships and partnerships within the Department of Fire Services as well as those with external agencies, as the MIRT does not have their own vessel. In fact, response to an incident would involve multiple vessels, for transport of personnel and equipment, command and control, and safety. The MIRT team fosters and depends on relationships with coastal fire departments and the U.S. Coast Guard to accomplish their mission. This allows for realistic training and gives the opportunity for all response agencies to review their tactics, techniques and procedures within their agencies and with interagency partners.
Each MIRT and TSU member is a local firefighter, as well as a member of one of the coastal district hazmat teams. All are trained to the hazmat technician level. Equipment and technology is ever-changing in hazardous materials emergency response and training is essential for a safe and effective outcome. In addition to monthly hazmat district team drills to assure skills are maintained and honed, MIRT and TSU technicians train in four additional drills annually, putting into practice skills that are specific to this specialized mission.
The June drill was the culmination of a year of training. Although the exercise was a success, the MIRT and TSU will continue to hone their skills. As with any disaster or incident, no one agency can handle it alone. Additional drills and exercises will be held, existing relationships will be cultivated and new relationships will be made. The MIRT and TSU will continue to do their part to be prepared for a potential “very bad day.”