It takes a special breed of person willing to protect the public’s safety as a hazmat first responder.
Some characteristics, like being a caring and giving individual, are certainly shared by all 23 members who run with Lebanon County’s Emergency Management Services (EMS) agency — especially when you consider that 18 of the members serve as volunteers.
“Looking to do something meaningful,” says Jon Zechman, 23, of Cleona, about why he’s a volunteer member of the county’s hazmat team and the Cleona Fire Department, “and to have a greater purpose to help others. I feel it is one of the most worthwhile things you can do.”
Gary Verna, Chief, Hazmat and Special Operations, Lebanon County EMS, agrees with Zechman’s assessment, noting that a majority of his crew also volunteer at local fire departments.
“It’s about their willingness to serve their community, wanting to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” Verna said. “I think that shows with the dedication our team has with the time they put in. They buy into our mission, buy into being a part of that mission and helping to grow it.”
Other characteristics, however, are more specific to each individual member. For Mike Houser, 46, who is the agency’s chief deputy, serving is in his blood, deeply entrenched within his DNA.
“I kind of grew up in the Avon Fire Department and my dad was the chief there for a lot of years,” says Houser, who lives in Myerstown and also volunteers with the South Lebanon Township Fire Department. “A friend of mine was a member of the hazmat team and said, ‘why don’t you come run with us?’ So I did because I like the aspect of doing something to save the environment.”
No matter their collective and personal motivations, one thing is certain: these individuals are to be admired for putting their lives on the line every time they respond to an emergency call.
While no one likes to discuss the potential dangers, the inherent risks that come with each call, training — and plenty of it — helps lessen the occupational hazards associated with responding to hazmat incidents.
Each year, the county’s EMS team logs not hundreds, but thousands, of hours in a classroom learning as well as practicing hazmat-related scenarios to maintain the certifications needed to ensure their safety and that of the general public.
“We’re always training,” says Verna. “Just this year, we’ve put in 8,000 personnel hours. We’re always looking to refine. With what we deal with in the hazmat world, we have to train, we have to keep the skills fresh because the calls don’t happen as often as the other types of incidents in the emergency world.”
Much of the training is layered, Verna explained, so as not to overburden a new member with too much training too soon. The time required for a new member to reach the highest level of certification requires hundreds of hours of learning and training.
Certification calls for “168 hours total with the candidate level and the operations and technical levels,” Verna says. “Our training goes all the way up to various kinds of specialists. While there are many specialties, most require an additional 40 hours of training per specialty.”
But the learning is far from over once certification is achieved. Each member must recertify, at a minimum of 24 hours per year, their defensive skill sets. And, no matter your job title, yearly recertification is required to maintain those positions.
“We work well with Lancaster County Hazmat. Their chief is a hazmat instructor,” Verna said. “He provides the building blocks, the foundation, for our people — really anyone who goes through the tech class, which is 40 hours to start and then between 12 and 16 hours to refresh the next year.”
In 2020, the team’s training has been put to the test.
Verna said that through mid-August, the team has responded to 85 calls, which is nearly 10 more than the previous record of 74 in 2018, adding that his agency is “well on its way to responding to over 100 calls this year.”
Most of the calls are the most dangerous kind of hazmat incident: an overturned tractor trailer that has dumped its fuel and requires environmental remediation.
“We’re up on the interstates [78 and 81] more times than not,” Verna said. “When you are operating on the interstates, you have to have your head on a swivel. Even if the vehicle is off to the side of the road, you have to be constantly cognizant of what is going on around you.”
It’s sad that this specific type of call is the most dangerous, since it is also the most preventable.
“People [drivers] generally don’t pay attention when they are in a hurry and this leads to secondary accidents on the roadway all the time,” Verna said. “A worker was just killed on a highway in Berks County a few weeks ago, and that can happen to anyone at any time.”
Other forms of hazmat responses are for leaks or spills that can cause water and soil contamination and, surprisingly, water rescues.
“Many of our calls are for leaks that threaten our waterways or another aspect of the environment,” said Verna. “We also do water rescues, responding to technical rescues of people whose lives are in danger, whether they are kayaking on the Swatara Creek and have an accident or after a bunch of rain falls. We were just in Berks County at the beginning of the month with one of our boats to assist them with a rescue involving flooding.”
Verna believes the higher volume of responses this year is due to a public relations tour he made of the county when he was hired in 2016. He traveled to nearly every fire department and other related agencies in the valley to let them know his department was there to assist when needed.
“It’s in response to other agencies knowing what we do in the county,” Verna said. “Whether it’s fire departments, law enforcement, or DEP [Department of Environmental Protection]. The team has built a good rapport with them.”
Throughout the interviews, the consistent use of the word “team” makes it clear that there are no egos with these hazmat responders. In fact, all are quick to praise their peers.
“We’re at the point where I don’t have to go to every single call,” Verna said. “We have team members who I know can handle any incident, which is great, which is awesome. It’s also great when you arrive on the scene and no one knows who the leader is because everyone has assumed a leadership role. That’s 100 percent through training and attitude. Our team members have wonderful attitudes.”
Houser praised Verna for the leadership he’s provided to the team over the past four years.
“I think the team has made a big turn for the better since Gary took over a few years ago,” Houser said. “The team has flourished under his leadership because he’s done a really good job and motivates us to be the best that we can be.”