Air Force, Firefighters Partner for HAZMAT Response

Fairchild AFB firefighters join regional firefighters as they don self-contained breathing apparatuses to perform decontamination support near the spill zone of a hazardous materials incident. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)

LIBERTY LAKE, Wash. -- A tanker truck leaking a hazardous chemical prompted emergency responders to shut down Interstate 90 near the Washington-Idaho state line Sept. 14, garnering regional response including Fairchild Air Force Base firefighters.

"We arrived on scene within 30 minutes of receiving the call," said Bryant Benitez, a 92nd Civil Engineer Squadron fire department driver and operator. "While Spokane has their own hazardous materials team, they asked for assistance and we were happy to lend a hand by helping mitigate the situation, solve the issue and support with decontamination equipment and personnel."

Four Fairchild AFB firefighters, one technician and a variety of support staff as well as the base's mobile decontamination and rehabilitation unit joined two dozen other firefighters, trucks and equipment from Spokane regional fire districts in response to the incident.

The leaking truck was parked at the Washington State Patrol weigh station and Port of Entry just east of Liberty Lake after the smell was reported by a fellow motorist following behind who noticed a "peculiar smell" emanating from the truck.

"A valve on the truck began malfunctioning leading to the vapor leak," said Lt. D.J. Hill, the Spokane City HAZMAT coordinator and a Spokane Fire Department firefighter.

The Florida-based truck carried 7,000 gallons of anhydrous trimethylamine, a flammable substance used in making solvents, animal feed supplements and products consumed by the paper, oil and gas industries.

Such a substance required HAZMAT crews on scene to use extreme caution limiting their time on site. The crews had to go into the spill zone seven times before they could successfully contain the substance and have confidence the area and air were safe. Only about a gallon of the substance leaked, but even that small amount can be extremely dangerous as the chemical is extremely flammable.

"This multi-jurisdiction response would not have been possible without Fairchild's support," Hill said. "Some days, like today, we don't have a complete HAZMAT team on hand, so it's great we have such a powerful working relationship with Fairchild's emergency responders. While it may be the first time we've integrated like this, it certainly doesn't feel that way."

Echoing Hill's admiration, Benitez explained how the feeling is mutual.

"The base has always had amazing community support," Benitez said. "We care about them just as much as they care about us."

According to Idaho State Police, I-90 reopened during the morning of Sept. 15, after Washington and Idaho state officials cleared the Northwest's main throughway for public transit.

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