Jun 1, 2002 12:00 PM
AN OLD song by Johnny Horton has the refrain: “When it's springtime in Alaska, it's 40 below.” That is a bit of an exaggeration, but it makes an important point.
Alaska at just about any time of the year is no place for an untrained novice to take on the challenge of responding to a hazardous materials incident. Rugged wilderness and an unforgiving climate create a demanding environment for even the most experienced emergency responder.
To get the necessary training to be fully prepared, many emergency response personnel in the state turn to the Alaska West Training Center in Fairbanks. A division of Alaska West Express, the training center has been in operation since 1995 and has instructed thousands of responders from industry, law enforcement, military, and fire fighting.
“From January 2000 to January 2001, we put 6,188 students through our programs,” says David McDowell, training director at Alaska West Training Center. “Many of them came from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company (the consortium that operates and maintains the trans-Alaska pipeline that extends from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south). We've also done training for fire departments throughout the state, the US Army, US Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration, and Williams Petroleum. Most of our focus is in Alaska, but we do hold some classes in Washington State.”
The school grew out of the Alaska West Express fleet safety program. The carrier began offering customer training in 1992 after a rollover-training trailer was put into service by the safety department. By 1994, demand for the rollover training had overwhelmed the safety staff. The training center was up and running a year later.
Besides McDowell, the current staff at the training center consists of James K Maltby, director of health, safety, and environment; Billy D Mercer, safety specialist; and Arlene Bender, administrative assistant. Maltby was Alaska West Express safety director when the training program was initiated, and he continues to handle safety for the fleet.
McDowell, Maltby, and Mercer are more than just instructors. They coordinate the response to any Alaska West Express hazardous materials incident. Further, they all serve on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Hazardous Materials Response Team.
“This is one of two Level A teams in the state, and we work closely with the Department of Environmental Conservation,” McDowell says. “Fairbanks is a transport hub for the North Slope, and a lot of hazardous materials move through the borough. There isn't a lot of mutual aid, and the entire borough has a population of just 80,000. We're on the edge of civilization and could end up a thousand miles from any other large population center.”
The involvement with real hazardous materials emergencies has given the three instructors crucial perspective in developing the training program. They have experienced first hand the risks, dangers, and challenges that are waiting to confront an emergency responder on the Alaskan frontier.
“When we discuss field conditions, the students know that we've been there,” McDowell says. “It gives us credibility.”
In all, Alaska West Training offers 56 courses under six categories — Emergency Response to Hazardous Materials, Hazardous Materials Transportation, Hazardous Waste Operations, Incident Command System, North Slope Training Co-Operative Courses, and Safety. New courses are being developed, including a commercial driver license program. An oil spill course was launched in spring of 2001.
Training can be provided at client locations or at the Alaska West Training Center facility at the Alaska West Express terminal in Fairbanks. About twenty-five students at a time can be accommodated in the training center classroom. Most of the courses are split 50-50 between classroom and field instruction.
A wide range of equipment is available for hands-on instruction at the Fairbanks facility. Drills and training exercises also are conducted at other locations where students can be exposed to the sort of conditions they are likely to face at an incident site.
Weather gets considerable attention in most of the training programs. “At 40 below, emergency response is a very different operation,” McDowell says. “Staying warm is the first challenge, followed by keeping the equipment running. Small engines for pumps and such have to be started in a building or a truck van.
“Hypothermia is an immediate threat to responders. A tremendous number of calories are burned. You can feel totally drained of energy after several hours on the job. It's not uncommon in extreme cold to rotate crews every 15 minutes, giving them an hour break. It can take four times more people to handle an incident.”
Fire extinguishers don't always work, and valves can freeze up on the vacuum trucks used to collect spilled product. Level “A” suits conduct cold and become brittle. Frost builds up on the exhalation valves of respirators, and the face shields fog up.
Hazardous materials perform differently and pose new risks in extreme cold. Propane is relatively stable at — 40°F because it goes into its liquid state. Gasoline remains liquid but can cause frostbite if spilled on a responder. Crude oil will spread out after being spilled until it cools off.
Methanol flows away from the spill site no matter what the temperature may be. In terms of clean up, it is one of the worst products to spill, according to McDowell. It's used in crude oil operations because it doesn't freeze.
Snow and ice can be both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, snow and ice can be used for damming and diking. Powdery, fresh snow will absorb a lot of hydrocarbon, McDowell says. Dirt and gravel often are too frozen to be useful.
The negative for snow and ice is that they impede response work. Snowfalls of a couple of feet aren't uncommon in parts of Alaska. Ice on a lake or river doesn't always form a barrier to spilled hydrocarbons. Responders must break through the ice to reach the contaminant.
Driving a grounding rod, for control of static electricity during truck pumpoff, is impossible in frozen ground. Instead, responders must bond from one vehicle to another with a grounding cable. Combined with extreme cold, low humidity makes grounding and bonding a serious issue in the interior parts of Alaska.
Distance and terrain are additional challenges at any time of the year in Alaska. Incidents can happen far from civilization. It may take eight to 10 hours for a response crew to reach an incident site. Responders often have no alternative but to let a tanker rig burn following an accident.
With all of the challenges, Alaska certainly is no place for inexperienced emergency responders. Fortunately, companies such as Alaska West Training Center are providing the skills needed to operate safely and professionally in a very demanding environment.
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