By JIMMY LAWTON
St. Lawrence County Emergency Services Coordinator Joe Gilbert says he is pleased with the board's decision to resuscitate its hazardous materials response team.
He said the agreement approved recently by St. Lawrence County legislators is far superior to the previous contract, which was too expensive to maintain.
"Unfortunately the old agreement was very cost prohibitive," he said.
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.
Gilbert said the county team was never cut, but was unable to afford the hourly wage associated with the training for the team's 16 members under the old agreement.
"It would have cost us $35,000 to send our team to the free training courses," Gilbert said.
He said the previous agreement paid team members an hourly wage for responding, training time and any other duties associated with hazardous materials.
According to Gilbert, the hourly rate also disqualified the county from receiving grants for its hazardous materials team because of the wages.
"So not only did we have to pay this salary, but we also couldn't receive grants to offset it," he said.
Due to the high cost, the team was unable to be re-certified and went defunct in March.
Gilbert said the old agreement had several other flaws that made it ineffective. He said surrounding counties did not want mutual aid from St. Lawrence County, because responders would have to be compensated by the county it was sent too.
"If we came to Franklin County with an hourly team, this put them on the hood for the salaries and nobody wanted that," Gilbert said.
Under the new agreement, the county contracts with the City of Ogdensburg for a flat fee of $17,500 per year. The team members consist of firefighters, police officers and department of public works employees, along with volunteers.
He said the new agreement allows the county to apply for grants, respond to mutual-aid calls without charging its neighbors and receive training at no cost to the county.
"I'm very pleased with the new agreement," he said. "One of the benefits of incorporating volunteers is that we will have responders spread throughout the county."
Gilbert said members will need to be re-certified, but the team could be up and running by December.