Officials review disaster drillPublished 9:07am Friday, September 11, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Had chlorine gas actually escaped from Mennel Milling Thursday morning, temperatures, humidity and wind direction suggested a plume a mile wide and two miles long, according to Deputy Fire Chief Dale Hutchings.
“We based it on actual weather conditions,” Hutchings said in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activated on the upper level of City Hall for the countywide emergency exercise.
“Dowagiac is light years ahead of most municipalities,” said Patty (Carlisle) Klug of the city Police Department. “That’s one thing David Smith, the county emergency management coordinator, and I talk about a lot. We’re very fortunate here,” including a corps of trained citizens and students through CERT/SERT for emergency response at the community level.
Klug previously served with the Sheriff’s Office and as county emergency management coordinator.
CERT volunteers were tapped Sept. 10 to portray victims overcome by chlorine gas treated at the hospital.
“Even just acting as victims, they’re exposed to the whole system and how things are working, which makes them better prepared when we do need them,” Klug said.
“The more humidity in the air, the more visible it would be,” Hutchings said. “Real early this morning we had quite a bit of fog in the area. That release would have been very visible in the air. It would look like fog. The colder the temperature, the better off you are.”
A chlorine leak could potentially result from moving tanks, if a line or a valve somehow broke, although “they’re very safe. It would be pretty difficult to do because valves are recessed. It could happen, but is not very apt to,” Hutchings said. “Their operation is very safe.”
Firefighters arrived carrying two kinds of containment kits, each with clamping devices and valve caps for a different size cylinder.
While you might think of chlorine as something you put in a pool and then swim in, fire Capt. Guy Evans explains, “When chlorine comes into contact with water in your lungs, it turns into hydrochloric acid” and causes cardio-pulmonary problems.
“It is extremely rare that there would ever be this type of thing because the safeguards built into industrial systems are incredibly strong,” City Manager Kevin Anderson said.
“They’re inspected regularly by outside agencies. The level of accidents seen throughout the country indicate how safe it is to handle. Almost every water system in the country has it in some form. The mill needed to do a training, the hospital also wanted to do a training and it was a perfect opportunity for us to test our system as well.
“Ultimately, it made it a bigger test than it normally would have been” with the public and private sectors working together “to see how well our systems work and how we can improve them” absent the pressure of finding out in the middle of a real crisis.
“I commend our public safety staff for, when they heard about it, seeing it as an opportunity for a true test and examination of our system as well,” the city manager commented.
Hutchings said the haz-mat suits firefighters donned on Spaulding Street at Cedar are lighter weight and disposable than gear they would wear for a real leak.