Originally published in The (Columbus, Ind.) Republic, Oct. 18, 2001

By Andy Proffet
aproffet@therepublic.com

The members of Columbus Fire Department’s hazardous materials team have been kept busy in the past few days with a rash of perceived anthrax threats.

Although the firefighters are ready for a return to the routine, they know that won’t come for a while.

“As long as there are anthrax threats in New York and Florida, we’ll be getting them everywhere else,” said Dave Foster.

The numerous runs haven’t completely drained the department’s manpower.

For a full decontamination, at least nine haz-mat technicians are required, including a two-man entry team, a two-man backup team, a decontamination team, a logistics officer and an incident supervisor.

Even with the anthrax scares of the past few days, the full team hasn’t been needed.

“Anthrax is not a severe threat because it’s not a vapor,” said Sgt. Doug Hollenbeck. “So it’s not going to spread over a wide area.”

But CFD isn’t taking the situation lightly.

“You have to handle the situation the same each time,” said Ron Sexton. “Otherwise, the one you take it easy and say, ‘It’s just a hoax,’ that will be the real one.”

Forty-five of CFD’s firefighters are paid to be on the haz-mat team, with about 20 others certified, Hollenbeck said.
Firefighters must pass 80 hours of training to be certified.

Most of the training takes place at Fire Station 2 on Central Avenue, where the haz-mat team is based, with instructors from state fire schools and the National Fire Academy.

Also, Hollenbeck said, team members must meet annual requirements to retain their level of training.
And the team meets every few months to test its skills.

The training isn’t focused on specific chemicals, but on how to get information on the chemicals involved and how to contain the situation.

Columbus has one of the few fire departments in south central Indiana with both the equipment and training to face hazardous materials situations.

“We’re fairly well-equipped, but we’re not Indianapolis by any means,” Hollenbeck said.

The team doesn’t clean up large chemical spills, instead calling on private companies, said Capt. Jerry Bell.

The team has been collecting the suspicious envelopes that have prompted this week’s anthrax scares.

The evidence is being held in a secure location.

“Each one will be examined” to see if it tests positive for anthrax, Bell said.

Although the haz-mat training isn’t required, those who have taken the training consider it part of their duty.

“If you’re going to be the one exposed to these situations, you might as well be the one in there doing the work,” said Sexton.

“I want to be trained as much as absolutely possible,” said Foster.