Citizen Wausau

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Future of HazMat in Wausau

by on November 23rd, 2011

Every now and then I attend city council and committee meetings not because there is something on the agenda near and dear to my heart… sometimes I attend just to get a pulse for what is going on.  (Okay, and sometimes I attend for entertainment value.)  The agenda for Monday evening’s Wausau Public Health and Safety Committee looked like it would give me a good mix of items.  They were going to discuss with the owner of Malarkey’s their concerns now that this popular downtown bar has 125 points assessed against their liquor license.  They quickly passed ordinances for firearms in reaction to Wisconsin’s conceal carry law and those ordinances already needed to be tweaked, and there was going to be a discussion of Wausau’s HazMat contract with the state.

Of course, there were some other things that really made the meeting interesting that I may very well discuss in future blog posts, including two people turned down for bartending licenses (one because they had outstanding felony charges but were not convictions yet, so they disputed license denial on the “innocent until proven guilty” concept; and another who was guilty of some felony arrests, but more than 10 years ago and was disputing his denial on the “how old must those charges be before I have served my time” argument).  NOTE:  On my rental applications, I ask about arrests and I ask about evictions.  An arrest or conviction does not automatically mean I will turn you down, neither does an eviction.  I need to know the situation to determine the risk factors involved… but whenever an applicant looks at those questions and responds with the words… “Here’s the thing….” – I can almost guarantee “the rest of the story” isn’t going to help their case.  The same was true last night.

The other was someone who had come to the meeting hoping for some ordinances on quiet hours.  Apparently, he lives in a lower rental and the tenant in the upper unit plays their TV loud and is noisy in general after 10 PM so this person cannot sleep.  He has called the police a number of times… however Chief Hardel reported that when officers responded, the noise level was not unreasonable.

In spite of those entertaining issues, the discussion that I found most interesting was the HazMat discussion.  Now keep in mind, I have not done any research on this issue so I really can’t go in depth on how HazMat calls have been handled in the past.  Also, I didn’t realize until the discussion was almost over that this item would be blog-worthy, so I did not take any notes.  I am going 100% off of my memory of what was discussed, so if I am getting something wrong, please leave a comment on this blog and tell me.

Up until now, the state had regional HazMat teams all over the state.  Instead of dedicated teams, these teams would be based with various fire departments.  These departments would then buy equipment to handle HazMat (which stands for Hazardous Material by the way) emergencies, and have personnel trained and certified to respond to situations within their region.  Needless to say, this created some fairly significant expenses for those departments.  However, those departments would be compensated by the state for this additional capability.  The Wausau Fire Department is currently receiving just under $100,000 per year from the state to be the regional HazMat response team.

Because I have not seen any news reports in recent years about Hazardous Material emergencies that have not been able to be handled with the available resources, I have to assume that this system that has been in place for many years seemed to be working just fine.  However, government in general has never been a strong believer in my personal philosophy of “if it works, don’t f_______ with it”.

The State of Wisconsin is completely changing how they set up their HazMat response teams.  They are going to have Level 1 response teams, which can pretty much respond to anything including nuclear and weapons of mass destruction.  You then have Level 2 response teams who are fairly similar to the current regional response teams except they will not be able to respond to nuclear issues.  Finally, there will be Level 3 response teams who are basically able to handle small issues, or at least secure the scene until a Level 2 or Level 1 can get there.

Under this new program, the State has submitted a draft contract to Wausau to become a Level 2 response team, and would basically serve an 11-county area.  The problem is, that the state wants the Wausau Fire Department to cover an area larger than the one they cover now… and they want them to do this for about $73,000.

So, by the end of this year, the City of Wausau has a choice when it comes to a HazMat response team…

First, Wausau can accept the contract and become a Level 2 state HazMat team and receive $73,000 from the State for doing so.  The problem is, this is a gamble.  Depending on what services are needed, these funds may not cover the expenses needed.  Actually, based on my understanding of the conversation, it will NOT cover Wausau’s expenses.  For example, the state will only pay for a 7-person team to be deployed to an emergency.  However, Wausau’s Fire Chief says that for many responses, a crew of 12-14 is needed to ensure the safety of all who respond.  The Chief states he cannot in good conscience (and therefore will not) send 7 people when that is all the state will pay for when he knows more people are needed for a proper and safe response.  Because this is an 11-county area, a dozen of Wausau’s firefighters could be over an hour away.  So, in addition to the expense of the HazMat response, additional Wausau firefighters may need to be called in to ensure that Wausau could handle a major structure fire here in city limits.

Basically, choice one is take the state up in their offer.  This puts $73,000 into Wausau’s Fire Department budget… but if the actual expenses of being a Level 2 team exceed this, then Wausau’s taxpayers have essentially picked up part of the check for HazMat coverage for this 11-county area.

Second, Wausau can keep its HazMat team, but not sign the contract with the state.  We already have the equipment (although it does need to be maintained and periodically replaced).  However, there is a cost involved in training and certification. Wausau would then continue to have HazMat coverage for any emergency that happened in the City of Wausau (and probably the greater metro area where Wausau has mutual aid agreements), but our HazMat team would be OUR HazMat team.  The down-side, the department loses $73,000 from the State, which is money I assume they were budgeting on receiving.

The final option… Wausau decides that based on budget issues, that HazMat coverage is not going be something provided by the Wausau Fire Department and if there is a HazMat issue in the greater Wausau area, we will need to wait for response from HazMat teams in either the Eau Claire area, or the Appleton/Oshkosh area.

Personally, I really don’t care for any of these options.  I don’t mind paying taxes for the services provided by the fire department to me… but I am not a big fan of paying taxes so my fire department can go handle emergencies hours away.  I am not a big fan of the possible local budget problem having local HazMat capabilities that are not part of the state program… and I am not a fan of not having any type of HazMat capabilities at all.

It will be interesting which way our city leaders decide to go…

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