The “Godfather of Hazmat”
Engine 18's Gore was about to become hazmat's number one son. As a new lieutenant in the early 1970s, Gore was assigned to the Training Academy for a year. This was common practice back then, but Gore's experience would be far from common after he met Training Chief Simon Joseph King, Jr. Gore was still getting used to pinning bugles on his collar when King assigned him the task of teaching hazardous materials as part of a fire science course at Florida Junior College (FJC), now Florida State College at Jacksonville. There was just one problem: "I didn't know the subject matter," said Gore. Neither did anyone else on the job. Initially, Gore and his students, many of them firefighters, spent time with chemistry teachers. However, lectures on molecular structures and chemical reactions didn't translate well to emergency response.
A frustrated Gore soon found relief in practicality. He convinced FJC's administration to allow him to train his students in the field. In Ron's words, "We trained at the rail yard, ship yard, the tank farm," adding that private industry was very cooperative in providing access and institutional knowledge. Gore's class became an on-site assessment of industrial hazards, chemicals, production methods, and containers. Through that familiarity, Gore and his students began to understand the risks and devised response strategies.
America’s First Emergency Services Hazmat Team
Together, the members focused on making America's first hazmat team as capable as it could be, often at their own expense and while off duty. They looked to military surplus outlets for protective gear, they collaborated with private industry and JFRD's machine shop to design effective tools, and they traveled the country to understand the volatility of new chemical products. Back then, Jacksonville provided very limited funding to the team, according to Gore. However, that didn't stop them; they willingly bore the costs of travel, training, and even some specialized equipment. Their first hazmat units are shown in (Figure 1.3).
The initial request for volunteers resulted in more than 50 firefighters wishing to join the team. There was no additional pay for being on the hazmat team. For selecting team personnel, Captain Gore looked for firefighters who had some previous experience with chemicals. These were firefighters who had worked for gas companies, had some military experience, and had experience with various chemicals. As with anything new, there was a lot of distrust and resistance to the new hazardous materials team from officers and firefighters alike.
According to Phil Eddies, JFRD retiree and an original hazmat team member, "We had the attitude that when we were working together, there was no event we couldn't handle." Theirs was an extensive and unrelenting discovery process. According to Gore, there were no precise OSHA standards for hazardous materials response to guide them. Although they lacked technical knowledge and defined procedures, the team had confidence. "When we formed that team, it was the best group of people
Figure 1.3 Jacksonville's first hazmat units were Engine 9 and Engine 9A. (Courtesy: Jacksonville Fire Department.)
you could have hoped for," according to JFRD retiree Phil Eddins original hazmat team member. And handle they did; propane tank fires, derailed train cars leaking hydrogen chloride or muriatic acid, and petroleum tank farm fires. There were exposures, but no serious injuries. Each incident was a response as well as a lesson for the team (Figure 1.4).
There were skeptics of the team from early on, and some who poked fun by labeling the hazmat team members as the "Clorox team" or "bleach drinkers." Eddies said he eventually took the monikers as a compliment, and JFRD retiree Jim Croft also embraced the identity. On occasion, when he got transferred to another station, Croft would show up with his gear
Figure 1.4 Jacksonville's original hazardous materials team members. (Courtesy: Jacksonville Fire Department.) in one hand and a genuine bottle of Clorox in the other; "I'd come inside the station and set it down on the table". As the team continued to prove itself, the nicknames subsided, and interest from departments across the country increased.
Personnel from the Jacksonville Fire Department pretty much had to make things up as they moved forward. There were no response procedures to follow so they had to be developed as the team gained experience. Attempts at tactics were developed as they responded to incidents. Sometimes they worked and sometimes they did not. They developed procedures and equipment following incidents where they saw the need for something that would have helped them during an incident.
As there wasn't much hazmat equipment available commercially, much of what they used was created in their maintenance shop by the Chief of Maintenance. They literally invented things as they went along. Incidents that occurred were discussed on all three shifts, which is how many of the early team members learned to deal with hazardous materials, basically through trial and error. It would be difficult to train every firefighter to deal with hazardous materials. When the team was organized, little was known about personnel protective clothing for chemicals outside of the military. Early on they would use plastic trash bags over their firefighter turnouts for chemical protection.
They would soon find out that suits obtained from the military were good for some chemicals but not for all. During a tank car leak incident at Union Camp in July 1978, a technician's suit was breached during operations on top of a hydrogen chloride tank car dome (Figure 1.5). Little was known in the beginning about suit compatibility and the suits being worn were not compatible with hydrogen chloride. Decontamination didn't
Figure 1.5 During a tank car leak incident at Union Camp in July 1978, a technician's suit was breached during operations on top of a hydrogen chloride tank car dome. (Courtesy: Jacksonville Fire Department.) exist at the time, and there were no hot or warm zones, like we use today. Most personnel in protective clothing or not were right up in what would be the hot zone. Much was learned about personal protective equipment (PPE) and suit failure from this incident. This incident, despite its issues, helped establish the credibility of the new hazardous materials response team.
Many of the procedures and equipment mentioned above would seem highly unusual in today's world of hazmat response. However, keep in mind that it was the early efforts of the Jacksonville Fire Department's trial and error, flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants operations that have evolved into today's organized and structured hazardous materials response. Hazmat response was new to city government as well. The city did not provide money for equipment or training. Much of the training and travel expense was paid by team members. Despite the uncertainty and lack of procedural guidance available at the time the team was organized, there was no loss of life or serious injury among team members.
Gore's travel included trips with Chief Yarbrough, who was the president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). This gave Gore numerous opportunities to present to large audiences who were hungry for information that only he and JFRD's team could offer. Gore has said that he doesn't recall any other fire department challenging Jacksonville's position as the first to forge a municipal hazardous materials response team. "It makes me proud," he said.
JFRD retiree Andy Graham joined the team in 1980 and remained a member until retirement in 2004, longer than anyone else. During that time, he interacted with several visiting fire departments. According to Graham, "We had people from Canada, the Virgin Islands, New York." He also recalled, "They wanted to ride with us. A lot of times, we didn't have anything noteworthy, but they would ask questions. We would just talk about hazmat. They knew that Jacksonville was the leader in this, and they wanted to pick our brains." Graham said he joined the hazmat team to try something different. "After a couple of weeks, I thought Why didn't I do this sooner? he recalled. They were so eager to learn. That's what impressed me."
Graham also recalled how JFRD members initially had their doubts about the team, but after a few years, the field took notice of their effectiveness and cautious work habits. According to Graham, "We'd show up decked out in air packs." "People began to understand if we had our stuff on, they better have theirs on." Although the team faced plenty of unknowns, Graham said that Gore trained him and everybody so well that he "can't ever remember fearing" for his life. Graham: "Capt. Gore loved the job, and he taught me how to love it." "He gave me the push to love what I did, and I love it. When I retired, it took me about a year to get over leaving."