Skype used for international haz-mat training

HARLINGEN – The Matamoros bomberos, the firefighters, had their hands full.

A rail tank car was leaking chlorine, and victims were piling up at the decontamination tent.

Miles away at the Harlingen Emergency Operations Center, the operation was being directed in real-time via Skype video. It was a first for Texas, and possibly the United States, officials said.

The mock haz-mat incident Friday morning was of course a training exercise at Casa de Amistad’s parking lot, one that involved a dozen U.S. agencies in addition to the Matamoros firefighters.

Officials said “border” was just a word when it comes to a leak of wind-blown hazardous gas or other material, whether it originated in the United States or Mexico. It capped a week of training here for the Matamoros bomberos.

“We’re allowing the border to be non-existent when it comes to emergency responses,” said Brownsville Fire Chief Carlos Elizondo.

“We’re so close to the border especially with these chemical plants over there that exist now, it would take us a long time to cross the border and assist them,” he said.

“So if they’re there and already trained as first responders to take care of their own emergencies, we’re in support to those emergency needs,” he added. “It’s a great event between Harlingen and Matamoros … and I’m glad it’s happening.”

It looked, and felt, like the real thing.

The Mexican firefighters bundled into their full-body yellow or blue haz-mat protection suits. Those suits may save them from chemical contamination, but they provided no protection from the brutal heat and humidity in the Case de Amistad lot.

As television crews and firefighting officials panned the scene with their cameras, the Matamoros firefighters loaded “victims” onto stretchers and carried them to a portable, yellow decontamination tent.

There, the victims of the chlorine leak were washed down, and moved outside as more victims poured in.

Funding for the exercise came from an Environmental Protection Agency grant of $60,000, said Cirilo Rodriguez, assistant fire chief in Harlingen.

“This particular exercise involves a remote emergency response,” he said. “At the other end of town we have the emergency operations center running the event, and we’re communicating via radios, via phone lines and Skype.

“The Skype aspect of it is unique because they’re able to film what’s going on here at the site, and transport all that information back to the EOC and they’ll be looking at it,” Rodriguez said. “We have hazardous materials technicians out there in the field where the experts can pretty much radio or transmit information back on the particular incident or the particular chemical that’s involved.”

In addition to the Matamoros firefighters, other agencies involved in the mass training exercise were the Harlingen Fire Department, the Community Emergency Response Team, U.S. Coast Guard, the San Benito Fire Department, the Mission Fire Department, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Cameron County Health and Human Services Department.

The “victims” were played by local emergency medical technician students.