Firefighters at I-44 hazmat case say they learned from recent exercise
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (March 9, 2010) — Less than a week after a misstep in a training exercise “killed” an entire duty shift of Waynesville firefighters, members of that same shift responded with extra caution Tuesday evening to a report of a 20-pound bag of suspicious powder found by state troopers on Interstate 44.
Missouri Department of Transportation personnel had found a large bag with a powdery substance near mile marker 168; in the process of pulling it off the roadway, the bag opened up and a large amount of the substance had dispersed into the environment. Suspecting possible narcotics, a member of the Missouri State Highway Patrol responded, tested the substance, and became seriously concerned when the preliminary testing didn’t show it was an illegal drug but also didn’t show what it was.
Waynesville Rural Fire Chief Doug Yurecko received a call to respond and immediately called for backup from the St. Robert Fire Department, which is the primary hazardous material agency for the area, Pulaski County Ambulance District personnel, and Mark Twain REACT. Yurecko also placed the Rolla-based Region I Hazardous Materials Response Team on standby and arranged for Fort Leonard Wood’s hazardous materials team to be available by telephone for technical support.
“My initial thought was whatever this was, the trooper on the scene had been exposed to it because he tested it to see if it was a drug or not. The second thought was, jeez, this is on the side of the interstate, this is going to be fun,” Yurecko said.
Waynesville and St. Robert firefighters responded in full protective gear including air tanks and placed tarps over the product so no more of it could blow away, and used a chemical analyzer to identify the substance.
In prior years that might have required contacting the laboratories at Fort Leonard Wood’s chemical school for help or transporting the substance to a university research lab, but in the post-9/11 environment, St. Robert firefighters obtained a grant to purchase a chemical analyzer that can identify about 3,000 chemicals through a variety of field-testing procedures.
“The piece of equipment we are using is exactly the same thing Fort Leonard Wood has and the same thing the (National Guard) Civil Support Teams use. St. Robert Fire is the primary hazardous material response for Pulaski County so we requested their assistance,” Yurecko said.
After testing, the suspicious substance turned out to be a beeswax and low-density polyethylene compound that is used in detergents and a number of other products, Yurecko said, and most likely fell off a passing truck. While it has many different uses it’s not commonly associated with drug activity or other illegal operations, he said.
Yurecko said his firefighters learned and applied valuable lessons from last week’s training exercise.
“It happened to be the same crew that was involved in the exercise last week. They didn’t park quite as close this time, but to be fair, this time they knew what they were going into, that it was a possible hazardous materials situation,” Yurecko said. “They all claim to be walking dead bodies now.”