By JUDY SHERIDAN
Marking September as Emergency Preparedness Month, Parker County commissioners met last week at the Hudson Oaks Public Safety Building, beginning their regular session with an overview of the sophisticated, high-dollar equipment used for rare but high-risk hazardous materials events.
Parker County Fire Marshal Shawn Scott, who gave the presentation, ushered members of the court and others through a yellow decon tent set up in the building’s parking lot.
The tent, capable of decontaminating up to 50 people per hour, uses hot water from the outside and can adjust the temperature of the contained air, he said. Victims are brought in, disrobed, scrubbed and given a government-issued trash bag to wear.
The water is collected and sent for treatment afterward.
Inside the tent, Parker County Emergency Response Team members dressed in the two suits they usually wear, which cost between $90 and $250, Scott said, depending on the level of protection needed. During events, the seams of the suits are sealed with chemical tape.
A level A suit — fully encapsulated with contained air — can run as high as $1,100 and is good for just one use, he said.
Scott also pointed out non-sparking tool kits — made of aluminum and glass — and a portable mass spectrometer, which can identify up to 400,000 different chemicals or determine the makeup of an unknown chemical.
The purpose of Hazmat is containment and confinement, Scott said, not cleanup.
“It’s only to stop the emergency and minimize the impact on the general public,” he said. “A third party does the cleanup and disposal; whoever caused the incident takes care of that.”
Combating hazardous materials is expensive, Scott said, and most of the county’s equipment has been purchased with grant funding over time.
In addition, he said, nuclear waste is transported through Parker County, so the state replaces and calibrates the county’s equipment on an annual basis.
A bigger issue is manpower, Scott said.
“We focus on an emergency response team, a manpower pool from the different fire departments through the emergency service services districts,” he said. “When there is an event, that pool comes together to facilitate whatever the need might be.
“It prevents all the different fire departments from having to purchase the same equipment and do the same training.”
Scott said emergency response members are required to complete hours of training each year.
“These events don’t have a high frequency, but when they do happen, they make the news and have a very large impact on our communities,” he said.
On occasion, however, Hazmat teams discover that there are no viable threats.
Late last month, for example, a reported suspicious package mailed to a Willow Park resident was declared harmless after a Parker County hazardous materials team and a Fort Worth bomb squad investigated.
The protocol triggered by a call reporting the receipt of the bubble-wrapped package, later found to contain “consumer products,” affected portions of Overland Trail, Wagon Wheel Road and Singletree Lane in Stagecoach Estates, as authorities closed roads, rerouted school buses and delayed residents from returning to their homes until the mystery was solved.