Las Vegas Fire breaks down preparedness for hazmat situations


Las Vegas Fire and Rescue called the mercury scare at Walter Johnson Middle School the largest decontamination incident in the department’s history.

It took 17 hours to screen more than 1,200 students and staff members at the school.  No one was hurt during the mercury scare, but the situation has drawn questions about preparedness in the state.

So how prepared are first responders when it comes to handling hazardous events that could lead to mass casualties?

After the tragedy on 9/11, different agencies in the Las Vegas valley started doing annual training to respond to all types of mass casualty events, especially in areas of high concentration, like the Las Vegas Strip, but unlike a shooting or an earthquake, handling a hazmat situation is a slower and tedious process.   

Frustrations were running high as parents waited for numerous hours to pick up their children from the school after the mercury contamination.

“If it involved thousands of people in an office building or a casino we would do the same thing that we did at that school,” said Tim Szymanski, Las Vegas Fire & Rescue.

Szymanski with Las Vegas Fire and Rescue says in an even bigger scale event, a “unified command” would be activated.  A unified command involves the different responding departments including fire, police, paramedics, city and county officials, and other agencies.  In an incident that calls for a unified command, an emergency management team plays a supportive role.

“The commanders call back to the emergency management agency and say ‘this is what I need to get the job done,’ Szymanski said.

The emergency management team has a guidance manual with instructions on what to do and who to call depending on the urgency.  In many cases, like the incident at Johnson Middle, out of state resources would be called in.

“There are teams positioned in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix that would immediately hit the road and come up here (Nevada), said Szymanski.  “That would take about 12 hours.”

In a mass casualty event involving a toxic chemical, the most severely injured are taken to local hospitals.  Medical personnel gears up as soon as a uniform command is established.

“If it’s something that’s going to require decon here at the hospital, we have equipment set up, along with showers that are usually set up in the ambulance bay,” said J.D. McCourt, the Medical Dir. of Adult Emergency Dept. at UMC.  

UMC has a team of about 25 people in their decontamination team.  McCourt says they are in charge of cleaning up patients before they are seen by a doctor.

“We do procedures twice a year; mass casualty procedures,” McCourt said.  “They can be traumas; we did one a couple of — I think a year ago where it was a radiation exposure scenario.”

So far, all the scenarios have been practiced.

“What if we had an incident on the strip or what if we had an incident on Fremont Street?  That’s the one we hope we never have to deal with,” Szymanski said.

Las Vegas Fire and Rescue says it’s a team effort to respond to any emergency.  8 News NOW also reached out to Clark County to find out their plan of action, but no one was available to speak with us Friday.

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