Hazmat incidents aren’t things that residents usually think of, however with the state government scrapping the funding for regional hazmat, there are more then a few questions left unanswered.
Recently the Plains Volunteer Fire Department along with the Plains-Paradise Rural Fire District started the first of a two-day hazmat training. It was noted during the training that the eight-hour course local firefighters were taking part in was originally a 48-hour course.
“The current training that we are doing is only minimal to the extent of what it should be. We are only obtaining the training to be able to set up a perimeter to then wait for a cleanup/technician team to take control of an incident if it happens,” said Plains Volunteer Fire Department Chief Anthony Young.
“Even though we are undergoing operational hazmat training, it’s limited to its full extent of what we could be getting,” he added.
He said the reduction in training hours is a direct reflection of the Montana Legislature’s cuts to funding for regional hazmat.
Young said that had it not been for specialized trainer Tom Zeigler joining the department, they would be scratching to find a way to get local fire teams efficiently trained.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, when approached on the issue, blamed Gov. Steve Bullock for the cuts to hazmat training.
“The governor cut funding in areas of essential services rather than elective type services, such as glass-blowing classes. So taxpayer money is not going where it is needed and that makes me angry,” Fielder said. “Even though we are known as the Treasure State, we are not receiving the revenues of our treasures, so money is tight. But we as a government shouldn’t be putting first responders at risk by cutting funding from essential services,” she added.
Fielder further emphasized that when it comes to rural areas, the training is important to keep residents safe.
However, the governor’s office said that when Bullock put his proposed budget cuts to the legislative majority it included the keeping the hazmat essential-training funds.
“The cuts to these particular funds were done by the legislative majority during regular session,” said a spokeswoman from Bullock’s office.
The spokeswoman added that the proposed balanced budget would have maintained the essential services fundings such as the regional hazmat.
“He [Bullock] did not want these cuts that were made by the legislative majority,” she added.
A copy of the 2017 Legislative Impacts Summary was made available to the Valley Press which shows that there was no representative from the Sanders County District within the group that voted to cut the funding.
The document shows that only four of 12 senators voted to keep the funding in place.
Information presented to first-responders stated:
“It may be necessary to take some of the air monitoring equipment out of service. Monitoring allows the technicians to clearly define the hot zone, without it, we are guessing.”
The details also included, “Many (if not most fire chiefs) have stated they would not send a team if called with no reimbursement.”
The original asking was $65,000, then dropped to $22.000 then to $11,000.
“Even if the funding was $11,000, the federal government would have matched that dollar for dollar. It means that we would have some money to keep things going for the specialized teams to even be able to continue regional trainings,” said Young.
Montana has six specialized hazmat teams in Helena, Kalispell, Missoula, Bozeman, Billings and Great Falls.
“This affects us greatly,” said operations chief Paul Finlay of the Missoula team. “We have specialized equipment to upkeep along with a long list of other essential parts that come along with this type of response team.”
“With the funding we had previously, it could cover equipment upgrades or replacements, calibrations of our specialized air sensors and even be able to efficiently train rural fire departments, like what Sanders County has to an operations level,” he further explained.
It is still being determined where this leaves Sanders County along with other counties that do not have a specialized hazmat team.
“We have not been told we cannot respond, however it does make it difficult for us when we now have to determine the situation and its potential risks,” said Finlay.
“We also have to rely on the information from the responding crews. So if they do not have at least a [full] operational level of hazmat training, that could mean a potential of lives at risk not only for the teams that may have to travel to the incident but for those first responders that are already there,” he explained.
Plains Chief of Police Shawn Emmett said that he was unaware that the budget cuts had affected the regional hazmat funding.
“Yes, it worries me. We have trains and trucks that carry chemicals, fuel, av-gas and other hazadous materials through here,” he said.
“Should we have an accident or derailment we are putting our first-responders at further risk if they can’t get the training they need to correctly identify a hazmat incident.”
Emmett also said that it not only affects the fire departments in Plains and Sanders County, but also all the emergency first responders.
“When they cut the funding for correct training, it flows down through many departments,” he said.
“People don’t see the Titanic before it sinks,” he said.
Plains-Paradise Rural Fire District Chief James Russell also chimed in with his worries on the funding cuts.
”For us, it creates a real burden for our volunteers that we are restricted with the support from specialized teams being in more of a rural area where we pick up extra traffic if I-90 shuts down,” said Russell.
“It appears that the value of what we do is not recognized at state government level. Without solid resources, we can’t effectively keep our residents as safe as we can because our already limited resources are quickly becoming non-existent,” he added.
Plains Mayor Danny Rowan said the hazmat funding should have received a higher priority.
“It leaves many rural communities in a precarious position if this type of accident occurs.”
Chief Young added, “I hope it (funding) can be resolved before a major incident occurs and not after.”