BY BARRY WARNER
HAZMAT is an abbreviation for hazardous materials, which are substances in quantities or forms that may pose a reasonable risk to health, property or the environment. HAZMATs include toxic chemicals, fuels, nuclear waste products, plus biological, chemical and radiologic agents.
Jerry Knapp is a 40-year firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw Fire Department, training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona and chief of the HAZMAT team. As chief, Knapp is responsible for directing members during emergency response operations. The team responds to requests for assistance from all Fire, Police and EMS through the mutual aid system. Because RC Hazmat is a FEMA Type 1 team, members are trained and equipped to deal with any hazardous material, chemical warfare agent and other known and unknown threats.
“We have many unique and high-tech capabilities to assist and protect Rockland’s emergency responders and residents,” Knapp said. “For example, we bring massive amounts of foam and foam cannons for use on flammable liquids like gasoline or Bakken crude oil fires, as a result of railroad emergencies. We recently used this capability to extinguish a transformer that contained thousands of gallons of oil that were on fire in Hillburn at a ConEd substation.”
“My team is well equipped with the latest detection and identification instruments, which can detect and identify chemicals in solid, liquid or gas forms in quantities as low as parts per million,” Knapp continued. “Part of my responsibility is to keep this sensitive equipment operational. There are daily tasks of calibration, certification and testing of numerous instruments, devices, radios and protective suits. There’s a sense of accomplishment after arriving on an uncontrolled and dangerous scene, determining what’s needed, then making it happen to resolve the incident.”
While keeping his team up to date on new equipment, improvements in protective equipment and threats can be challenging, Knapp attends national conferences to keep current on that state of the art.
“Volunteering is nothing new to me or my family—my grandfather was Chief plus my father, brother and son have served the Fire Department for many years,” Knapp said. “For me, it started in 1973 with the West Haverstraw Fire Department as a firefighter and the Haverstraw Ambulance Corps as an EMT. You have to give something back. We live in the greatest country the world has ever known, that was built and defended by great Americans who did their part. For example, like other members of the Greatest Generation, my dad volunteered for the marines after Pearl Harbor. He fought on Guadalcanal and Tarawa with the 2nd Marine Division and was wounded during the invasion of Saipan.”
“It’s an obligation to give something back for all the benefits we enjoy every day,” Knapp continued. “Volunteering is my very, very small contribution and that’s no different than any other volunteer in any Fire Department of Ambulance Corps in Rockland County. A lot of great folks have helped to steer my course, including Dan Greeley, Past Deputy Director of Fire and Emergency Services and Gordon Wren, current Director of Fire and Emergency Services.”
A hazmat suit as an overall garment worn to protect firefighters from hazardous substances, such as chemicals, biological agents or radioactive materials, according to www.chemsuits.com. The level A hazmat suit provides total encapsulation with the highest levels of protection for the skin, eyes and respiratory system dealing with hazardous levels of mists, vapors, gases and particles. It’s used when work operations deal with high risk and potential for exposure, immersion or chemical splash. It consists of a full-face piece self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or a supplied air respirator with an escape cylinder. A firefighter must wear protective footwear, such as steel-toe boots with shanks on the outside of the suit. Two-way radios are worn on the inside with microphones and ear speakers for a clear communication channel. Gloves made of rubber, plastic or synthetic rubber-like materials such as neoprene can protect firefighters from chemical hazards and also reduce the risk of exposure to blood and other infectious materials.
Dan Moran is a 45-year fire service veteran, a Rockland County deputy fire coordinator for Hazardous Materials and former Chief of the Suffern Fire Department. Also, he has more than 40 years in the chemical-pharmaceutical industry as a research chemist.
“Lederle had the first organized hazardous material team in the county,” Moran told the Rockland County Times. Working there, I asked the fire chief if I could join the team and this led to training courses all over the country including Texas A&M University, Environmental Protection Administration, the National Fire Academy, Association of American Railroads in Pueblo, Co., a couple of day courses and eventually being certified to teach hazardous materials courses by New York State. Very few chemists jumped to what I call ‘chemistry on asphalt’ where many spills occur. At incidents, my function is to clarify that the spilled product has been identified and to work with ‘command’ regarding safety issues, as well as approaches to the incident. It’s surprising to find me in a totally encapsulated suit at an incident, but it has happened.”
“I grew up in rural Western New York State in a community that seemed to be served by volunteers in all kinds of capacities, whether it be helping your neighbor down the street or the local fire department,” Moran continued. “At 10 years old, I would count the fire box numbers from the local steam whistle and look on the back of the telephone book for the location. If the alarm went off again, I would jump on my bike and fast-peddle to the location, observe and take pictures. We had a neighbor who was in high school and he invited me to his house to do experiments with his new chemistry set. Wow—did I like chemistry. I eventually received a birthday present of my very own chemistry set with a book of experimental instructions. My fifth-grade teacher assigned everyone a presentation on a topic that would interest the rest of the class. Into class comes the chemistry set under my arm and, the teacher being skeptical, I had to promise that there would not be any accidents! I had the itch to become a music teacher because of the connection to the band and orchestra. However, I liked chemistry more and after college and graduate school and taking a job at Lederle, I joined the Excelsior Fire Company in Pearl River. Then, I learned what it was like to help people you don’t even know at the worst time in their lives. With all this comes satisfaction.”
For additional information about the Rockland County HAZMAT team, visit www.rocklandsbravest.org or call 845-364-8800.