FREDERICKTOWN — First responders train for scenarios which rarely, if ever happen, and develop skills to adapt to the unexpected. When the unusual happens, and a large part of the community is at risk, the skills of first responders are put to the test.
A tanker crash Monday afternoon which threatened the safety of many residents in the area because of a potential hazmat leak was such a test. Firefighters, law enforcement, emergency management, and representatives of state and county agencies quickly mobilized, combining their resources to handle the potential life and safety threat from the hazardous substance in the wrecked tanker.
“A scenario such as this is an example of why departments train for potential large-scale disasters, as well as training with other agencies,” said Fredericktown Fire Chief Scott Mast, who commanded Monday’s incident, early this morning after crews were cleared of the scene.
Interim EMA Director Brian Hess, who activated the county Emergency Operations Center early in the evening and assisted Mast at the scene, said the county’s reaction to an unprecedented emergency was successful.
“It was a situation that we normally don’t encounter, which is out of the realm of what they normally deal with,” Hess said of the first responders. “They were able to use their skills to adapt to the situation at hand and keep the protection and well-being of the citizens of Knox County as their priority.”
While Fredericktown firefighters rotated as crews into the hot zone surrounding the accident, others remained on station for several hours on standby, along with Fredericktown EMS crews. Fredericktown EMS chief Rick Lanuzza also alerted Knox Community Hospital so it could prepare for possible casualties.
That situation repeated itself in other departments as well, as firefighters and EMS personnel from Mount Vernon, College Township and Jefferson Township also remained on station and working in different capacities to close roads and evacuate homes.
Hess said the Knox County hazmat truck and trailer, which have never before been used for a hazmat incident, were put into service Monday evening on the Mount Vernon side of the incident.
On the Fredericktown side, Hess used special computer software and EMA resources to assist Mast in predicting where a potential cloud of escaped anhydrous ammonia could travel. Hess remained on the scene until it was declared cleared.
“I’m nothing but impressed with the way Brian Hess and EMA handled this,” Mast said after the incident. “He assisted us. He made sure we had all the resources to mitigate the situation.”
The Knox County Chapter of the American Red Cross opened shelters at The Salvation Army in Mount Vernon and the First Presbyterian Church in Fredericktown to accommodate displaced homeowners. Red Cross volunteer Linette Porter in Fredericktown said families had been stopping in for information and snacks while the fire department worked to keep the scene contained.
Residents such as Tim and Kellie Scheck of Crooked Street, whose home was in the evacuation zone Monday evening, said obtaining information was their biggest challenge.
“The radio’s not saying what’s going on and the police officers in Mount Vernon are telling you to listen to the radio,” Tim said.
They said they came to the shelter to try and find out when they may be allowed back into their home to check on their pets. When it became clear the situation would stretch into the night, the Schecks, like some other residents, decided to head for local hotels. With so many roads into Fredericktown blocked, some residents said they planned to stay with family or at hotels.
Because of the evolving nature of the incident, information changed throughout the evening. Residents were given information as it became available through the EOC and EMA public information officer Capt. Dick Brenneman of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
Hess praised the 9-1-1 dispatchers who worked throughout the incident, fielding calls from the public and keeping track of the location of needs of the first responders.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol had troopers working to help keep roads closed and firefighters safe from traffic. Mount Gilead Post Commander Lt. Chad McGinty responded to the EOC, and Sgt. C.R. McCruter stayed at incident command at the Fredericktown firehouse until the scene was cleared around 3 a.m.
“The cooperation from OSP was a great benefit to us also,” Mast said. “Sgt. McCruter was there during the entire incident, offering whatever resources their department had available.”
Fredericktown Assistant Fire Chief Larry Schunke remained in constant contact with crews who were suited in emergency gear in the hot zone.
Anhydrous ammonia forms clouds of vapor when it rises above its low boiling point of minus 28 degrees. That vapor can be deadly when breathed, causing pulmonary edema and permanent lung damage which can be quickly fatal.
“I thought we had a positive outcome to a potentially extremely hazardous situation,” said Mast. “I felt the interaction amongst all the agencies involved worked out the way it was designed and planned for.”
“Given the potential danger that the situation presented, I am encouraged by the cohesiveness and adaptability of the first responders who were on the scene,” said Hess.
Mast’s highest praise was reserved for the firefighters.
“The guys did a great job,” he said this morning. “There was no panic, just calm, cool and collected, and they got the job done.”