Portales firefighters hone skills at Hazmat competition

Argen Duncan

Four Portales firefighters donned protective suits and ran through scenarios involving leaking tanker trucks, missing radioactive sources and confined spaces last week.

The team took fourth place overall and in the technical category at the 14th annual Hazmat Challenge July 27-30 at Los Alamos National Laboratories. Twelve teams from New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma participated.

“We were pretty pleased with fourth because of the teams that were in it,” said Portales Fire Department Lt. Floyd Hancock, the team leader. “We were the smallest town; we were the newcomers.”

The Portales team also included 2nd Lt. John Kropp and firefighters Dathan Culpepper and Mike Chaves.

Hancock said teams handled eight scenarios during the competition that mimicked real-life emergencies and went through an obstacle course with tasks such as finding a key in a bucket of parts and running through tires, both in a high-level protective suit.

“The training facilities that they have there at LANL and the props are so lifelike, you can’t find this kind of training anywhere else,” Hancock said. “And even though it’s in a competition setting, it’s a huge learning experience for us.”

The Portales team wasn’t sure what to expect and just went with the training they had as part of their jobs, Hancock said.

“It was a lot more difficult than we expected,” he said.

Hancock said the shortest man on the team was 6 feet tall, and they had to handle a scenario involving a confined-space rescue. In the simulation, the firefighters had to get a woman out of an underground sewage tank with over-pressured valves and ruptured barrels, relieve the pressure on the valves, get product information and evacuate.

The Portales team took first place in that event, as well as in the transportation incident scenario. For that simulation, firefighters were told to recover a radioactive object missing from a wrecked truck and identify what substances each hazardous material class represents.

“Our department did an incredible job and should be commended for that, considering who they were up against,” Portales Fire Chief Gary Nuckols said.

Portales firefighters competed against several large teams with more frequent training, he said.

Overall, Midwest City, Okla., won first, Sandia National Laboratories took second, and the Farmington Fire Department came in third, according to a news release from LANL. In the technical category, based on the scenarios, Midwest took first, and Farmington and Sandia tied for second.

“We do look forward to going back next year and winning this thing,” Hancock said.