Allen Nygren stood in front of a group of local emergency responders gathered at the North Scarborough fire station and told them they needed to be prepared for a “dirty bomb” – a conventional explosive, like dynamite, that contains radioactive materials.

“Al-Qaeda has the know-how and materials to do it,” said Nygren, an instructor from Training Technologies International of Hermon.

Nygren was speaking to the Presumpsot Valley Hazmat team – a group of local firefighters, paramedics, police officers and even scuba divers trained to respond to dangerous chemical spills and disasters. Until recently, the group operated informally.

Now, five communities are seeking to bond together with a written pact for the team. The Gorham Town Council considered approving a written deal Tuesday after the American Journal’s deadline.

Mike Phinney, chairman of the town council, wanted to hear an explanation of why a signed agreement would be necessary and his support would depend on the presentation. “I expect to be educated at the meeting,” Phinney said early Tuesday.

Gorham Fire Chief Robert Lefebvre said a written agreement wouldn’t alter the way the Presumpscot Valley Hazmat team would respond to an incident. “It’s very similar to a mutual aid agreement,” Lefebvre said.

Lefebvre said an agreement would clarify the billing process besides defining the joint ownership of equipment that the team has obtained through the federal government.

Westbrook Fire Chief Gary Littlefield said Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant has the agreement, and he hoped it would receive approval soon. “It just formalizes the team. We should have done it years ago,” Littlefield said.

One of the five communities, Scarborough, has signed the agreement. In Windham, Fire Chief Charlie Hammond said Town Manager Tony Plante has the agreement. Standish Town Manager Gordon Billington said Tuesday he hasn’t seen the final version of the agreement yet. But Billington will present it to the Town Council in a workshop when he receives it.

New emergencies

When it was first formed, the Presumpscot Valley Hazmat team dealt primarily with accidental chemical spills. Now, world events have forced the team to train for much more serious things, like dirty bombs.

At the training session, Nygren spoke with the team about proper responses in a variety of hazardous material situations, including weapons of mass destruction. Refresher classroom training is an annual requirement for members of the team.

It began as a county team 18 years ago, said John True, the team’s coordinator. It was formed initially to cope with chemical spills at trucking accidents on highways or in factories.

Lt. Art Greene of the Scarborough Fire Department has been a member of the team from its inception, and he said hazmat team members mostly dealt with chemical spills then. “It’s getting more technical,” Greene said. “We’re looking at hazardous material, radioactive materials.”

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the team’s duties were broadened to include responses to explosions and biological and radioactive contaminations.

“You can never say never,” Dean Belanger of Gorham said about the possibility of any situation happening locally.

Belanger, a 12-year, fulltime Gorham paramedic and firefighter cited the value of training and dependence upon firefighters, police and emergency medical people. “We all train as a team,” Belanger said. “Everyone has to be on the same page.”


Belanger describes himself as one of the “glowworms” – the people who don protective suits in responding to a hazmat incident. The liquid repellent suit is zippered and closed airtight with Velcro to seal out particles. The equipment also includes boots and an air pack with a 60-minute supply. The average working time in a suit would be 20 minutes, Belanger said.

Although they are protected from contamination, the lives of the “glowworms” depend on research, information and the actions of fellow teammates. “You have to have your ‘A’ game every time,” Belanger said.

Wrapped up head to foot, he said the suits can get uncomfortable. “It gets warm in those suits,” Belanger said. “You’re in a little sauna bath.”

Responders are apprehensive and cautious. They rely on their teammates and their extensive preparation to do the job. “You go in and do what you have to do,” Belanger said.

The hazmat team works with bomb squads, but it leaves the handling of any bombs to experts. “We don’t touch bombs,” True said.

The team has traveled throughout Cumberland County dealing with hazardous material spills and investigating foreign substances discovered in various places. In December, the team was called out when packets of white powder were found in Gorham. It proved not to be anthrax. “It turned out to be drugs,” said True, who retired as fire chief in South Portland.

The team’s range also stretches beyond the borders of the county. It could be called to anywhere in the state.

Presumpscot Valley is one of five such teams in Cumberland County. It has been functioning without a written agreement among its member towns, but a formal one is being worked on. “It’s a true regional project,” said Fire Chief Michael Thurlow of Scarborough.

Training, equipment and cost

The team is administered in Gorham. True, a part-time employee paid by the county, works one day each week at a desk in the Gorham Fire Department. He meets with the chiefs once a month.

“The five communities work really well together. The system works very efficiently,” True said.

Members of the team are paid to attend classes and hands-on training along with their time spent responding to calls. Money to pay for training comes from grants, such as the state grant that paid for Nygren’s class.

When they respond to commercial incidents, Presumpscot Valley Hazmat bills the private businesses responsible for the spills. But the county would be billed in criminal cases. Typically, the team charges $1,000 per hour when it responds to a scene. Lefebvre said incidents each year vary from seven or eight to as many as 15.

The team has its own equipment. It converted a former bread truck and a school bus to haul the team’s gear. The two vehicles are housed in the South Windham Fire Station.

The team has received a $300,000 Homeland Security grant to buy a new truck, which is on the way. Gorham Deputy Fire Chief Ken Fickett said the truck is being designed specifically for hazmat responses.

The truck, which is expected to arrive in December, will be equipped with a computer, a light tower and a research center and will have room for six team members. “It’s a big step forward,” True said.

Greene said the Scarborough Fire Department also has a new truck, which serves as a command post. That truck, which is available to the hazmat team, is equipped with computers and cameras.

Other equipment includes protective clothing for technicians and a $40,000 decontamination tent. Additionally, books about a variety of hazardous materials are always at hand to help responders identify substances and know how to attack situations.

“Terrorists aren’t going to label,” Nygren told the class. “If you have an explosion and don’t know why, bring out the Geiger counter,” he said.

(hazmat 6) – Members of the Presumpscot Valley Hazmat Team work on a quizz in a class of refresher training last week.(hazmat 5) – John True, coordinator of the Presumpscot Valley Hazmat Team, on the left, confers with instructor Allen Nygren in a refresher class last week.(Hazmat 1) – Allen Nygren of Training Technology International instructs the Presumpscot Valley Hazmat Team on how to use a geiger counter.(Hazmat truck 4) – Presumpscot Valley Hazmat Team is getting a $300,000 special designed truck to replace this converted bread truck.

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