ITT: Preparing for a Biohazard Spill

Sep 6, 2017

The female researcher saw white powder coming from the small, cardboard box and immediately took action reporting the incident to authorities.

That’s the first step whenever there’s a potential biohazard spill of an unknown substance or fluid. Fortunately, this recent incident was a full-blown practice exercise at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health.

Lubbock has plenty of hazardous materials. Trucks and other vehicles carry dangerous ones as they travel Interstate 27. Then there are rail cars that move through the city. There are also plenty of schools that have labs, and business and warehouses that use or store hazardous materials.

A recent training exercise at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health, a Texas Tech University Department that’s housed on the grounds of the former Reese Air Force Base, put first responders through their paces.

“Basically it’s a suspected environmental hazard and our team is going to isolate and bring a victim out and decontaminate that victim so that they don’t contaminate the building, they don’t make it a public hazard,” Steve Holland, Lubbock Fire Department spokesman, said.

Hollands said that though they know this day is a training exercise, the hazardous materials team takes every step in the operation seriously. In a real life situation no one knows if the white powder is a poison like anthrax or ricin.

From the first report of a white powder coming out of a supposedly UPS-delivered package, everyone is working to evacuate the building, contain whatever the powder is inside the box and check everywhere for possible contamination – all while working to keep the public safe. The researcher and another woman in the room remain isolated there.

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The entire exercise lasts about three hours.

Steve Presley, whose studies at the institute include countermeasures to biological and chemical threats, said the boots-on-the-ground exercise is vital. The exercise teaches first responders where they could improve and what they do well.

“It’s critically important because this exercise, we’ve played for three days, this is the third day.” Holland said. “Each day we see something else that we need to fix. Even this morning, even with the revised plan published last night. There were issues that came up this morning that we need to address just to protect public safety.”

A decontamination area is prepared outside using three plastic children’s wading pools and first responders don protective suits and begin to breathe oxygen from a tank on their backs. They go to the area of the building where the woman and a colleague remained quarantined following the report of the white power.

Every step is monitored by supervisors, who are nearby and interact with HAZMAT personnel as they do decontamination on the women who reported the box with the white powder. The supervisors also walk along with the men in contamination suits as they work to test areas of the room where the box is. They also monitor how the box is removed.

Inside Texas Tech watched the third day of the exercise and this was the only day where the building was evacuated. Had a real biohazard event occurred elsewhere in the city, the box with the powder would like have come to the institute for testing.

According to Holland, the HAZMAT team wants to be prepared. “We find the little glitches that maybe didn’t work as smooth as we wanted to and we can improve those. And the things that are working right, it’s just that repetition that keeps those skills fresh in your mind.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention require the institute to do a training exercise once a year because it is designated as a Biosafety Lab 3, the second highest level of protection. The Lubbock Fire Department hazardous materials team does an exercise quarterly.

Federal regulations requires first responders to know where hazardous material is stored in Lubbock, but they are not informed as to what is traveling through.