Hazardous duty

Clovis Fire Department firefighter Aaron Gonzales packs a HAZMAT case which is used to identify potentially hazardous liquids and solids Wednesday in Clovis. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

Four years ago, Clovis was dependent on Cannon Air Force Base’s hazardous materials team in the event of a hazardous spill or terrorist attack.

On Wednesday morning, Clovis Fire Chief Ray Westerman recognized the Clovis HAZMAT team as an integral component of community safety at a Leadership Clovis event at the fire department. The leadership group was touring various city facilities on Wednesday.

Volunteers for the HAZMAT team have spent countless hours gaining the skills to handle hazardous materials, officials said, and city leaders have obtained more than $1 million from the federal government to put the necessary equipment in place. Much of that money has come from the Department of Homeland security over the past two years.

“After 9/11 you saw this really develop,” said firefighter and paramedic J.R. Whatley, who is a member of the team. “After 9/11 … they (the federal government) said we’re not going to stand for this. They allocated and made money available for departments like us.”

The HAZMAT team demonstrated its expertise March 31 when it identified a suspicious white powder — which turned out to be benzoyl peroxide — that had been dropped into a mail box at PNM Gas office at 600 Georgia St. Benzoyl peroxide can cause eye irritation and may irritate the skin with prolonged contact.

Besides identifying suspicious powders, the Clovis hazardous materials team is trained to walk through nerve gas, plug toxic leaks and break down meth labs, members of the team said.

Combining its efforts with other teams in the area, the Clovis HAZMAT team could potentially respond to a terrorist attack 800 miles away, said Capt. Rick Potter, who heads up the team.

Local emergency officials say the addition of the HAZMAT team to Clovis aids significantly to the safety of the community.

“It brings a huge value in the sense because we have (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) and all the truck traffic that carries hazardous materials,” said Ken De Los Santos, who is emergency management director for Clovis and Curry County.

He said Curry County received more than $400,000 in 2003 from Homeland Security, and more than $850,000 in 2004. De Los Santos is submitting the project list for the 2005 funding.

To date, the city of Clovis hasn’t had to fund anything other than overtime hours for the operation of the HAZMAT team, Potter said. The members of the team, however, have put in hundreds of hours of training to stay proficient in the most dangerous of tasks.

Besides its proficiency in dangerous tasks, the group of local firefighters also showed a bit of industriousness at a HAZMAT competition last year in Los Alamos.

“We camped out ’cause we couldn’t afford to stay in hotels in Los Alamos,” Potter said. “And these guys, by lantern light, practiced everything they could think of probably till 10 or 11 at night.”

The competition between 13 HAZMAT teams from New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas presented mock meth labs and other hazardous threats. Even though the Clovis team slept under the stars, it came away with a sportsmanship award.