Chief: local fire departments limited in how they can respond to hazmat crisis

LACONIA — Fire Chief Ken Erickson said yesterday that while his department is familiar with the flammable and hazardous materials stored and used by local businesses, its capacity to respond to incidents like the explosion that occurred at the New Hampshire Ball Bearing plant in Peterborough on Tuesday is limited.

The New Hampshire Fire Marshal yesterday said that explosion in Peterborough was "directly related to a nitric acid reaction" and has been classified as "an industrial accident."

Officials at the New Hampshire Ball Bearing facility in Laconia were not available for comment on Wednesday.

Erickson said that firms file reports of their hazardous materials on site annually, adding that local companies tend to keep such products in relatively small amounts and replenish them as necessary. He said that the departments is familiar with the layout of local plants and seeks to visit them at least every two years in order to prepared for any emergency that may occur.

However, Erickson emphasized that the department's first priority as the first responders to any emergency would be the safety of those involved. For example, he noted that on Tuesday firefighters and emergency medical technicians immediately decontaminated those who may have been exposed hazardous substances by the explosion, which involved hosing them down in frigid temperatures, and transported the injured to hospital. Erickson said that at the same time, the incident would be stabilized by shutting off electricity and gas supplies to the building.

Erickson said that if highly caustic, acidic or poisonous materials were released, the Central New Hampshire Haz-Mat Team would be called to the scene. "We can't protect firefighters from those kind of substances," he said. "We can evacuate the area and deny entry."

He recalled that in July, 2012 firefighters responded to ABC Fabricators at Cook Court to find some 275 gallons of nitric acid spilled inside the building. Although firefighters entered with breathing apparatus, Lieutenant Lisa Baldini ordered them out of the building when she sensed the fumes.

Erickson said that he was less concerned about the local industries, with which the department is familiar, than by the garages, sheds and barns that may contain flammable, volatile or hazardous materials unknown to the department and its personnel.