Fire house adds decontamination units

by Rocky Thompson

The Minneapolis Fire Department station closest to campus will house an advanced hazardous material decontamination unit starting this week.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are the first cities to purchase the latest technology in mobile decontamination systems.

Until three years ago, the fire department used inflatable kiddie pools outdoors with garden hoses and scrub brushes – year-round – to decontaminate victims of industrial or chemical accidents, said John Fruetel, fire department deputy chief.

“I would say, ‘Here’s a hose line and you’re going to get real cold real quick,’ ” Fruetel said.

Two people with long-handled scrub brushes would scrub victims in all weather conditions before rescuers hustled victims away to a hospital – still a common practice at most fire departments.

During the past three years, Fruetel said, the fire department used four emergency shelters, large inflatable tents that can be heated in winter and offer victims some privacy.

Minneapolis bought a 24-foot and a 50-foot mobile decontamination unit, while St. Paul purchased a 24-foot unit.

A federal grant and help from 46 Twin Cities communities went into purchasing the trailers, Fruetel said.

“If it was requested, we could send it statewide, if need be,” he said.

A rough estimate of the price of each trailer, he said, starts at approximately $70,000.

The trailers are designed to clean victims of industrial, chemical, biological or nuclear attacks with showers. The larger unit has four showers, and the smaller has two.

Victims would walk up a ramp, seal their clothes in a bag, then shower and robe themselves in Tyvek paper clothes.

Fruetel said victims of a large accident would then be examined and given medical attention based on their needs.

He said the decontamination units will be another tool to use in the event of an accident. The inflatable tents will still be used, he said, to examine victims and clean them if a high volume of people need decontamination.

Fire department officials said the smaller unit will be used in everyday hazardous material events involving their personnel, while the larger unit will be used in the event of an accident.

Rocky Thompson covers police and crime and welcomes comments at [email protected]