‘A thinking person’s job’: Fire captain assists in HAZMAT incident

Written by Gillian Smith
 | Wednesday, 09 July 2014 13:57


It’s not every day that a hazardous materials technician gets the opportunity to utilize his training, but on Monday one Duxbury firefighter got to work the front lines of an unusual incident.

Duxbury Fire Captain Robert Tripp was deployed to Manomet Elementary School in Plymouth Monday afternoon after a janitor was found unresponsive. The hazardous materials incident, the cause of which has yet to be deter-mined, sent three local firefighters, three police officers, two state troopers, two paramedics and a school employee to the hospital with eye and throat irritation.

Tripp, a member of the Massachusetts State Hazardous Materials Team, which is a fire-based team, was called down to the Tier 1 situation, which he said requires five to seven technicians to work the scene. Plymouth and Duxbury are part of the same district under the hazardous materials state team, and Tripp was on duty in Duxbury at the time, so he went down to the elementary school and spent nearly five hours working the scene.

While there, he worked with local, county and state officials to try to determine what caused the incident. When he arrived, he worked on taking several different chemicals that were thought to be involved in the incident and identified them on the Materials Safety Data Sheets, which are forms that can help determine what specific chemicals are present.

“Most of the chemicals we were working with were routine floor strippers and cleaners, each of which have three or four chemicals in them,” Tripp said. 

Tripp used a computer program to mix the individual chemicals together to see what potential new chemicals could be formed, causing a hazardous material incident.

“The program helps us figure out what would happen if we mix chemical A and chemical B,” he said. “If chemical C turns out to be potentially hazardous, we take that into consideration.”

Tripp also worked with the state police bomb squad to provide air monitoring with special meters.

“We thought the interior of the building was too dangerous for occupancy, especially after so many patients were trans- ported to the hospital,” Tripp said. “We hooked up special air monitoring meters to a state police bomb tech robot and entered the school robotically.”

Tripp used the robot to monitor the air quality and determine what hazardous materials were present in the school. Despite the long after- noon working the scene, the cause of the fatal incident is still unknown.

“We mitigated the incident, but the cause is still under investigation,” he said.

Tripp has been a member of the team for eight months and has been deployed nearly a dozen times. He has worked chemical suicide incidents, fuel truck rollovers and multiple mercury spills, both commercial and residential. He said he became interested in the specialized team because he enjoys the technical aspect of the incidents.

“I enjoy the hazmat side,” he said. “It’s a thinking per- sons team; it’s almost science, which I appreciate.”

In order to join the state hazmat team as a technician, a firefighter must log 325 hours of training through the state fire training academy. Because there are so few hazmat incidents in each town, the only place to apply that training is with the state team. After completing training, firefighters must go through an interview and application process. The entire state team has 270 fire- fighter members and each district has about 45 members.

Tripp is currently working on overseeing the chemical remediation of the middle and high school buildings as they prepare to demolish the old schools. He is working closely with the head of the science department to ensure various chemicals are safely transport- ed to the new school building.

Tripp said he is looking forward to working with the state team on future events.

“It’s a team effort,” he said. “It’s interesting to utilize our subject matter expertise to work an incident such as the one in Plymouth.”