Charles County's new hazardous materials team became active Friday morning after months of training and with the help of $1.5 million in Homeland Security grants. Its members called the launch a milestone in the preparation of the nation's defenses against terrorism.
Bill Stephens, who organized the team, would not even be in Charles County if he were any good at relaxing. A Navy diver during the Vietnam War with a self-described type-A personality, Stephens retired three years ago from his job as risk and emergency manager in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
After a few months of retirement, Stephens had "cabin fever" and decided to seek a job that would keep him busy. That post was Charles County emergency services planner.
One of the challenges of his main task -- building a hazardous materials team from scratch -- was that he could not hire anyone. Stephens is the team's only full-time employee. The 35 other members had to keep their day jobs.
The hazmat team has drawn from the sheriff's office, volunteer fire departments, emergency medical services, animal control and public utilities.
The team is authorized to serve only in support roles, but once all of its members have passed physical exams -- scheduled to be completed this month -- they will be able to enter contamination zones.
Stephens hopes to expand the team to as many as 150 members, but the funding for that is a long way off.
Federal grants have paid for most of the hazmat team's needs. During fiscal 2006, which began July 1, the county will contribute about $135,000 for the unit's routine operations -- everything from building shelves and lockers to filling vehicles with gas and maintaining equipment, Stephens said.
The county paid for a $175,000 hazmat truck that is designed to serve as a mobile command post, and Homeland Security grants paid for the equipment and supplies that the truck carries.
Federal money secured a full wardrobe of lime-green chemical suits with the highest level of protection at $1,300 each. The money also was used to buy trailers full of hazmat staples, including radiation counters, chemistry sets, industrial vacuum cleaners and high-powered fans.
The team has a shower trailer, with men's and women's stalls, that can be used to decontaminate hundreds of people if they come in contact with a chemical spill or attack involving hazardous materials.
Charles County's high-tech gear is a necessary component of running a hazmat team safely. It's also part of the attraction of joining the team.
"The green 'Gumby' suits you get to wear -- this is not the same as your everyday work," said Chris Thompson, a fire and EMS communications supervisor.
Charles County may seem an unlikely target for terrorists, but its proximity to Washington means that the team could be sent to help with a situation there. "If the big one happens, who's to say that we won't be in the District?" Thompson said.
The District and the threats to it are well known to Adam Weiss. In his day job, he is a sergeant with the U.S. Capitol Police. He joined the local hazmat team because he lives in Charles County. He has been a hazardous materials specialist for 14 years and a devotee of emergency response units since long before that.
When he was 4 years old, he made the fire station in his Philadelphia neighborhood a home away from home, serving as the unofficial mascot for Engine 60, Ladder 19, and riding with the firefighters every other day.
"I never thought in a million years I'd be a cop. I thought I'd be a fireman," Weiss said, but his experience with hazmat teams has allowed him to bridge the gap between the two types of public safety work.
He responded to the discovery of ricin in February 2004 on Capitol Hill. His experience in that incident taught him a lesson that training can't.
"Things change. Nothing goes as planned," he said. "You might think that you have one chemical, and then it mixes with another, and now you've got a third that you haven't had before."
Steven Burrows, who works for the Charles County Sheriff's Office, was drawn to the hazmat unit by his fascination with chemical and biological agents, including Ebola and smallpox.
"These are amazing creatures in the things they can do to the human body in such small amounts," he said.
It is much larger creatures, however, that fascinate Sue DeGuzman, a member of the hazmat team and an 18-year veteran of Charles County animal control.
The roving nature of her job means that she might be one of the first people to spot a spill. "We're out on the road all the time, so we could be one of the first to roll up on something," she said. The hardest part of the hazmat job has been getting over her claustrophobia while wearing the green suits. "You realize that you can breathe," she said.
But even for people with the experience of Lynn Gilroy, a fire and EMS dispatcher who has served on hazmat teams before, there are a lot of new practices and information to cover because the nature of the work has changed since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The focus is more geared to" weapons of mass destruction, Gilroy said. "WMD is hazmat with a criminal intent."
Said Stephens: "It used to be a hazmat situation was an accident. Now the default setting is that it's criminal."