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Lewis builds solid-decon team, could use more members

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LOWVILLE — Lewis County has established a solid hazardous materials decontamination team, but additional volunteers would be needed to fully handle more extensive incidents.

“I feel really confident in this team that we can handle things,” said Richard V. Defone, commander of the volunteer squad. “But the biggest thing is to recruit more people.”

“For our little old county, I think we’re probably one of the best equipped in the state,” added Assistant Commander Robert A. Mackenzie III, also the county’s emergency medical services coordinator.

The roughly 30-member team is classified as a D1 decon team, the highest level for such a squad, Mr. Defone said.

However, only about six members are trained as technicians, while at least 10 to 12 would be needed to handle complete reconnaissance and neutralization of hazardous materials in a large-scale incident, he said.

In such a case, squad members from Jefferson or Oneida counties would have to be called in to assist the Lewis County team, which primarily would oversee decontamination of any involved people.

A relatively small chemical spill in 2010 at the Lowville Producers Cooperative cheese store on Utica Boulevard was handled by the county team, Mr. Defone said.

Men and women from throughout the county, from Harrisville to West Leyden, serve on the team, he said.

However, recruitment for the team, which draws from the local fire service, has not been easy, Mr. Defone said.

“Hazmat is not popular,” he said. “You say ‘hazmat’ and everybody wants to run.”

The team trains four times per year, with three hands-on sessions and a classroom meeting to maintain certification for the volunteers.

“Like everything else, it takes a lot of time,” said Lewis County Emergency Services Director James M. Martin.

Mr. Martin stressed the importance of having such a squad available, in case a spill of chemicals or other hazardous material takes place.

“There is a lot to be responsible for,” he said. “There is hazardous material no matter where you go.”

Chemicals are present in local factories and farms, as well as under kitchen sinks, and it is important to determine how fire or water will affect those chemicals or combinations of them, Mr. Martin said.

“You’ve got to identify exactly what you’re dealing with,” he said.

Anyone interested in joining may call the emergency manager at 376-5234.

Mr. Martin said the county received a decontamination trailer through a state-funded program prior to his appointment as emergency manager in early 2004, but it came with only basic equipment.

He eventually recruited Mr. Defone, a village resident who had led a hazardous materials team at Fort Drum, to lead the team with Mr. Mackenzie, and they have added equipment through state grant funding or assistance from Fort Drum.

The trailer now contains $175,000 to $200,000 worth of equipment, including air packs, hazardous material suits and detectors, with county taxpayers directly contributing only $1,000 per year for recalibration of equipment, Mr. Martin said. “A lot of that stuff is pretty expensive,” he said.

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