Houston organized a hazardous materials team in 1979 as the fire service was awakening to the hazardous material problem. It was a rocky beginning. There were few municipal hazmat teams from which to seek guidance. Problems plagued the team almost from the beginning. After a delayed start, the team quickly became the busiest hazmat team in the country and contributed to the training of hazmat teams throughout the world. The dedication of the early members was responsible for the rapid success of the team, which had been in doubt from the beginning.

 

 

 
A series of fatal railroad tankcar explosions during the 1970s slowly awoke the fire service to a new awareness of hazardous materials (hazmat). Municipal firefighters had always handled hazmat incidents. Previously, the incidents were called chemical fires and chemical spills. A method of fighting chemical fires was to hit the fire with a big line. If the fire spit back, another big line was laid to double the fire power. Some of the fire departments had limited amounts of rudimental materials for fighting chemical fires. Chemical spills were washed down the nearest storm drain.

Fatal tankcar explosions occurred in Crescent City, Illinois in 1970; Kingman, Arizona in 1973; and Waverly, Tennessee in 1978. The Kingman explosion took the lives of 12 firefighters. Houston had its explosion of a tankcar at a train derailment on Mykawa Road in 1971. These types of explosions were coined BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion). When a tankcar or other closed container is exposed to flames above its liquid level for a period of time, the expanding vapor blows apart the container. One firefighter was killed and 28 firefighters injured in the Houston BLEVE.

Hazmat Team Idea

Fire Chief V. E. Rogers started the Houston's Hazardous Materials Response Team (HMRT). He had attended a fire chiefs convention in 1978 where he saw a presentation of Jacksonville's new hazmat team. Rogers thought at the time that if anyone needed a hazmat team, it was the Houston Fire Department. After all, Houston was the petrochemical capital of the world. Rogers set a team in motion immediately after returning from the convention.

Rogers was one of the firefighters injured at the Houston BLEVE on Mykawa Road. He had been badly burned in the explosion. It took an extended stay in a hospital to recover from the painful burns across his back and lower. Many folks later thought that Rogers started the team because of this experience, but the real impetus for beginning the Houston hazmat team was hearing about the Jacksonville's team at the convention.

He chose District Chief Max H. McRae to organize the team. (Some would question the choice because McRae's district was not in the east side of the city where most of the chemical plants and refineries were located; his tenure had been limited to the "silk-stocking" area of southwest Houston.) McRae wanted no part of hazardous materials and began to delay his assignment. He made several proposals over the following months for plans to handle Houston's hazmat incidents without a hazmat team. The proposals generally involved the use of the industrial hazmat teams from nearby chemical plants. This way, Houston would not need its own hazmat team. Anything that would take McRae out of the picture.

Chief Rogers rejected each new proposal. This went on into several months of 1979. Finally, Rogers had enough. He told McRae in no uncertain terms to quit stalling and get him a team. The delaying tactic quickly came to a halt.

Preparation

McRae went to work organizing the new team. He assembled a committee of chief officers to lay out plans for a hazmat team. The committee consisted of: Doyle V. Ebel, a district chief near the ship channel; Roy G. Granberry, the fire department representative to Channel Industries Mutual Aid; Ernest C. Hooker; William A. Edon; C. C. "Bud" Simonton; and Carl J. Hooker. Other chiefs attended periodically at future committee meetings. Basically, it was the blind leading the blind. No one really knew much about a hazmat team.

The committee drew up a list of supplies and equipment it felt a hazmat team needed. Jim Bland, the fire department's fire protection engineer, was solicited to help with the list. Procedures for the team were promulgated. They were few in number and quite elementary. No one really knew just how a hazmat team should operate. Plans for training were thrown together willy-nilly. A fire inspector who inspected the refineries and chemical plants helped to line up people from the plants willing to provide training.

An attempt to get volunteers for the new team failed at first. Ebel switched his full attention to recruitment. By August, he had recruited enough men for a team.

A-Shift

James E. Knoll, captain; William T. Hand, chauffeur; Sam H. Morgan; Jesse T. Ybarra; Hugh W. Russ.

B-Shift

Phillip C. Cemino, captain; John E. Meador, chauffeur; Andrew W. Brown; Norman Driskell; Allen D. Keilers.

C-Shift

Elmer W. Blevins, captain; James R. Booth, chauf.; Amado Garza; Curtis D. Rush; William D. Henderson.
Training

Everything was in fair order to begin training on September 17. Industry was tapped to teach the neophytes. Much of the training turned out to be of doubtful value. Chemistry, which was thought to be important to a hazmat team, did little to enhance the needed skills. (The original requirement of a chemistry background for recruitment was quickly reduced to a nice-to-know attribute, but not essential.) None of the training did too much to build skills. About the only hands-on training was with chlorine containers and patching a few drums. Training was mostly lectures and viewing containers. McRae became concerned after the school. He had a feeling the team was not ready for the street.

There was no budget for the new team. Much of the equipment and supplies were mooched from industry. Personal tools of the men were used in the beginning. The team was to be a combination rescue-hazmat company, but the new rescue truck lacked room for the bulkier hazmat equipment and supplies. Nothing in reserve was suitable for a hazmat apparatus. As a last resort, the old worn-out rescue truck, which had been retired with the arrival of the new rescue trucks, was retrieved from the salvage yard. It was to run with the rescue truck on hazmat calls.

The way things had been thrown together surely destined the team for a short life. Many new ventures of the fire department at the time usually faded away after a short while, and it was quite possible the team would suffer a similar fate. There were no past experiences to guide the committee that put together the team. Everything had been hit and miss.

Team Begins

At 0630 hours on October 5, 1979, the Hazardous Materials Response Team (HMRT) began operations. The new team was assigned to Fire Station 1. The committee had recommended the team run out of a fire station in the east end of town near the petrochemical complexes. Chief Rogers nixed the recommendation. New apparatus and new special companies were always put at the central station, and HMRT was no exception. A minor chlorine leak greeted the B-shift on the very first day.

Several days later, the team was pulled out of service to complete its training at Dow Chemical Company in Freeport. Dow was unable to do its part during the regular school. The training proved to be what a hazmat team needed. The out-of-town classes were totally hands-on training taught by Dow's hazmat team led by "Beans" Little, a well-respected hazmat responder. His name kept popping up during the school. Dow's training instilled confidence in Houston's team.

Only twenty-six hazmat incidents were recorded during the balance of the year. A lack of hazmat runs would make it difficult to keep men on the team. Most firefighters craved action. A busy company has little time to create problems for the captain and chief. Actually, there were many more hazmat incidents during the rest of 1979, but fire dispatchers failed to dispatch hazmat on the alarms. The problem haunted the team for years before dispatchers remembered the fire department had a hazmat team.

An even greater annoyance soon evolved. HMRT was saddled with hazardous waste, a problem that was beginning to plague the country. Tougher government regulations forced midnight dumping of hazardous waste. No other city department was prepared to deal with the problem. Retrieval, storage and disposal of the hazardous wastes fell to HMRT. It was a nagging problem that escalated to a point where some of the men rebelled. Other than hazardous waste, many of the other early problems were settled over time.

Coordinator

McRae settled back to his beloved district after the team began, but he was not completely out of the hazmat picture. He was to oversee and arrange outside training for the team. But it evolved to much more. He was called upon to settle grievances both between HMRT and the district chiefs at Station 1 and between shifts. Getting new equipment and replenishing supplies landed on his shoulders. Reports and record keeping were inherited. Soon he was running the team almost totally. The burden finally became overwhelming. McRae asked Chief Rogers to sever him from hazmat. Instead, Chief Rogers assigned him full time to coordinate the team in April, 1982.
It was a rocky start, but the team quickly became a model for fire departments organizing hazmat teams throughout the '80s. Houston's team became the busiest hazmat team in the country. Firefighters and hazmat technicians from around the world rode with the team in its Ride Along program. Some of the visitors got more hazmat experience in a week in Houston than they got in months in their own department. Even hazmat technicians from industry regularly rode with the team.

Present Day

Today, HMRT has successfully handled thousands of hazmat incidents, some minor and some extremely dangerous. Involved have been every type of hazmat container, and almost every hazardous material. The men have been innovative. They've invented equipment to handle unique incidents and developed new methods to contain leaks. A training facility was built by the men at the Fire Training Academy. Forty-two members now make up the elite team dedicated to protecting the citizens of Houston.

Added Missions

New missions have been added to the team in recent years. Most members of the team are part of a new Houston Medical Strike Team, a team that responds to incidents involving weapons of mass destruction in and beyond Harris County. HMRT's inventory grew by over $1-million to carry out the new mission.

A few of the members were also tapped to be a part of the new Texas Task Force 1. The task force responds to major disasters and terrorist threats in both Texas and across the United States. Texas Task Force 1 was sent recently to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City to stand by in case of a terrorist attack, and responded to the terrorist attack on 9-11 at the World Trade Center. Again Houston became a leader. Hazmat members of Texas Task Force 1 train personnel of other task forces throughout the country for terrorist incidents.

HMRT has come a long way from the meager beginning and will always be ready to meet new challenges in the future.

 

 

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