By JIMMY LAWTON
CANTON – St. Lawrence County will resuscitate its hazardous materials response team, but Allen Rickett, who will head the team, says there are many hurdles to overcome first.
Rickett, a retired Ogdensburg firefighter and county fire investigator, says the new team will consist of at least 12 members from Ogdensburg and include both paid and volunteer members. Under the new agreement, the county will pay the City of Ogdensburg $17,500 annually. For the remainder of 2013, that price was prorated at $4,375.
The lack of a “hazmat” team was called into focus recently when crews from Franklin and Jefferson counties were called to respond to an ammonia leak at SUNY Potsdam. County legislators approved funding to the team, which went out of service in March, at their most recent meeting.
Although the County Board of Legislators has not hammered out details, chairman Jonathan Putney said the county will likely also contract with Massena to ensure both ends of the county are covered.
Rickett said he will join seven Ogdensburg firefighters, five Ogdensburg police officers and a DPW worker to establish the Ogdensburg team. He said the new team will consist of former members of the county hazmat team that was disbanded after funding was slashed unexpectedly from the budget.
"I've been banging my head against a brick wall since January over this," Rickett said. "The Director of Emergency Services eliminated the training costs from the budget. In March we took the team out of service for lack of training."
Emergency Services Coordinator Joe Gilbert says funding for the team was not cut. He said the previous agreement required the county to pay an hourly rate to Hazmat team members who were performing duties, including training.
Gilbert said the training is provided by the state at no cost to the county, but the hourly rate to pay for team members, under the old agreement, would have totaled about $35,000. Gilbert said his budget includes only $7,000 for training for all of its members.
“Funding wasn’t cut from the budget,” he said. “It never existed.”
Gilbert said the cost of a paid hazmat team was even higher than the hourly rates attached to the members. He said paid teams did not qualify for grants.
“In order to qualify for grants, I proposed a volunteer team. We have 2,100 emergency service volunteers in this county. I was confident we could find the volunteers to make this work,” he said.
However the idea did not gain support among county legislators.
Board Chairman Jonathan Putney said the county legislators voted down both a volunteer option and a paid hazmat team in split votes during the budget process. He said both options were looked at but failed to make it out of committee.
Putney said the job required some paid staff because volunteers are often tied down with work and other duties, but other legislators felt an all-volunteer team could handle the duties, or surrounding counties could provide the service.
Rickett said the lack of funding left the team in shambles since it could not afford to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration and state training requirements, which are even stricter than those of firefighters.
Rickett said the team will need to schedule training through the state and does not expect the team to be up and running before December.
"It's going to take more than just re-certifications," he said. "All of the equipment has been sitting around, we haven't touched it since funding was cut," he said.
Despite the obstacles and differences, Gilbert and Rickett are both pleased with the new agreement.
Rickett said he is glad the county has decided to reinstate the team, which will be strengthened by volunteer members.
Gilbert said despite claims to the contrary, he has always supported having a hazmat team in St. Lawrence County. He said the elimination of an hourly rate allows the county to pursue grants, ensures professionals can respond and allows volunteers from around the county to serve as active members.
“I am very pleased with the new agreement,” he said.
Rickett said the recent incident at SUNY Potsdam, where an ammonia leak forced the temporary closure of Maxcy Hall, drew hazmat teams from Jefferson and Franklin County. He said the teams did an excellent job, but had a long response time. He said it also left two counties without hazmat services, since they were deployed to St. Lawrence County.
"I believe it’s very important for the county to have its own team. You can stand and wait for two hours for other teams to come and bail you out, or you can have people at the scene who can handle situation and allow other emergency responders to get back to their jobs," he said.
Gilbert said the inclusion of volunteers will allow even faster response times, as the members will likely be spread throughout the county.