It was a national first for the dozen firefighters from six of Montana’s largest communities who began gathering at City College last week for advanced hazardous-materials training.
“Montana has adopted this course as the standard of care,” said Jack McCartt, a Florida-based instructor with the National Fire Academy who was brought in to help teach the 10-day course. “It’s the first state to adopt it at the state level.”
The course, which began at City College at Montana State University Billings on May 5 and continued through Tuesday, was designed for paramedics with Advanced Life Support medical responsibilities involving hazmat incidents. The intent is to teach them advanced skills and techniques in dealing with related medical emergencies.
It includes education and hands-on training using state-of-the-art equipment in chemistry relating to hazmat, medical management of victims and building and managing components related to medical support systems, including chemistry, biochemistry and decontamination.
“This course is designed to get up the standard of care and will exceed national standards,” said Tim Stavnes, a captain with the Billings Fire Department who helped run the course.
The fire departments in Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula each sent two ALS-trained members of their Regional Response hazmat teams, which are the only six teams across the state tasked with responding to hazmat incidents across Montana.
On Tuesday and after days of classroom training, the crews split into small groups to practice one of a dozen different scenarios.
Each scenario involved a patient who had been exposed to some sort of toxic substance. Wearing bright yellow, head-to-toe hazmat suits and breathing masks, the crews had to figure out what was wrong with the patient and begin treatment.
“We’re getting to work together, see each other and look each other in the face,” said Jason Lyon, an engineer and paramedic with the Billings Fire Department. “That’s really important as we’re working together.”
To help in the efforts, the exercise used a life-sized computer-controlled mannequin. The paramedics could check its vital signs and it would react to any actions they took.
“It’s all computer-driven,” said Stavnes. “It can demonstrate symptoms, which they can read, and it will respond to their treatments.”
McCartt, who teaches hazmat courses for the National Fire Academy, said Montana is the first state to take on the training at the state level. However, individual agencies or organizations have implemented the training and standards on their own.
“Paramedics are generally prepared to treat medical emergencies, but this course goes above and beyond that,” he said.
The course represents a collaboration between the NFA, the Montana State University Fire Services Training School and the six involved fire departments.
Stavnes said the course, including the equipment and bringing in McCartt, was funded by the state, a federal Hazardous Materials and Emergency Planning grant and the Department of Homeland Security.