City considering HAZMAT agreement with Choctaw County

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 21, 2007

DEMOPOLIS &8212; A HAMZAT proposal for extending a regional agreement with Choctaw County is getting a lot of support from city leaders, but a few questions of local safety still remain.

Bill Gibson, the emergency management coordinator for Choctaw County, asked the council Thursday evening to consider expanding a regional HAZMAT agreement. Under the current agreement, Choctaw County serves as the hub for a regional HAZMAT team that is dispatched to hazardous material spills.

Gibson asked the city council to consider pooling resources and taking on some of the financial obligation for the unit in return for sharing resources between the two departments.

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When asked about the financial obligation Gibson is seeking, he said Choctaw County currently incurs approximately $10,000 annually for administrative fees. Gibson said he would like to see to see the city assume half of that obligation.

The Demopolis Fire Department currently participates with the regional HAZMAT force. Interim Fire Chief Tommy Tate said the regional team consists of 29 total members, of which 22 are trained HAZMAT technicians. Ten of those members are from the Demopolis Fire Department, and all of them are HAZMAT technicians.

Tate said he did not object to the agreement but was more concerned with assuring that the city was well equipped to contain any emergency they may see while additional resources were in route.

During the Thursday night council meeting, Gibson told city leaders that the response time from Choctaw County to Demopolis was approximately two to two-and-a-half hours. However, Gibson said that response time in chemical spills is a lot different than response time for fires.

Tate agreed with Gibson, but he said that is not always the case.

The interest in furthering the HAZMAT regional agreement came after the city accepted a donation by James Suttles of Suttles Trucking. Suttles donated a trailer for HAZMAT usage. The city is now faced with purchasing a vehicle that will pull the trailer.

Instead of immediately purchasing a new truck, Tate recommended that the city wait until the next budget year and look at purchasing a truck that could not only serve as a HAZMAT truck but could be used for extrications. The cost of the truck is $95,000, something that has raised the eyebrows of several councilmen.

Gibson said one of the best aspects of expanding the regional agreement is that it could save the City of Demopolis money. Public Safety Director Jeff Manuel agreed.

He told councilmen that it would take approximately $500,000 just to start a HAZMAT team in the city. Manuel said in an interview yesterday that the $500,000 figure would only cover start-up.

Manuel said if the city moved forward with its own HAZMAT operation that they would duplicate services of the regional force, to which the city already belongs.

Another aspect that makes the proposal appealing, Manuel said, is the ability to get more funds from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Gibson said that right now most Homeland Security funds that he gets as director of the regional HAZMAT unit goes to equipment that is housed in Choctaw County. However, if the city signed an agreement, Gibson said the funds could then be used for equipment needed for the City of Demopolis as well.

Tate said that the Demopolis Fire Department has received some Homeland Security funds, like a recent grant for nearly $750,000 to purchase a new communication system. However, most of HAZMAT-related grants have gone to Choctaw County.

Instead, Tate said he is trying to stock the donated HAZMAT trailer by relying on corporate donations. Even with a fully stocked trailer, Tate said the city would still need additional equipment to manage HAZMAT situations.

Manuel said there was no way that the city could handle a major HAZMAT incident on their own. Tate said the city would have to rely on assistance from Choctaw County, Tuscaloosa, Selma and Montgomery.

The council asked that Manuel and Tate take the lead in researching the idea of furthering the agreement. Manuel said they &8212; along with members of the Public Safety Committee and the Finance Committee &8212; will &8220;look at everything.&8221;

Cooley said he wold defer to Tate in deciding what the city needs for its immediate needs but expects that where possible Choctaw County would store additional resources here.

Cooley said what the agreement will do, though, is give the city more options than they will have now or on their own.

Manuel said they were not working under any set timeline. Cooley said it would be on the agenda for the next meeting, but that the final decision could be several weeks away.