TAVARES — It’s May 2013, and Lake County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Tony Cuellar, along with an elite team of highly-trained firefighters, suit-up in specialized hazardous material (HazMat) gear to respond to a tornado that hit a small community, which happened to also have a methadone lab.
Once the area was secured by local law enforcement, the Lake County Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, stepped-in to evaluate the scene, contain the hazardous materials and monitor the air quality conditions so other emergency personnel could respond.
The incident wasn’t real, only a scenario as part of a regional, multi-agency training and assessment sponsored by the Florida Division of State Fire Marshall and Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), but Lake County’s SORT is always ready at a moments’ notice to handle such incidents.
“Lake County’s SORT adds an extra layer of support to the typical firefighter response,” said Cuellar. “The team handles all light technical rescue and HazMat response for Lake County, and is deployable throughout the state if needed for large-scale events.”
The comprehensive assessment evaluated teams from across Central Florida and involved identification of containers and their hazards, monitoring of hazardous atmospheres, leak control from large and small tanks (railroad tank cars, highway trucks, storage tanks and drums), spill control, foam operations and chemical identification. Each of the team members were put through the assessment and graded on their performance.
“Once the assessment was completed, we were able to identify any shortfalls in training within the region, as well as identify any needs of the individual departments,” said Rick Stilp, Region 5 HazMat Coordinator and LEPC Co-Chair. “All of the teams scored very well, and although the intent was not to compare one team against another, it was noted that Lake County’s HazMat Team (SORT) ended the assessment with the best overall score.“
The 33 members of Lake County’s SORT are specially trained to handle incidents like hazardous spills, mobile meth labs, high-angle rescue, vehicle and machinery extraction, confined space rescue and structural collapse rescue. They also monitor the scene when firefighters are responding to a call, to keep emergency personnel safe.
“We assist the Lake County Sheriff’s drug enforcement team and bomb squad where meth labs are discovered or a suspicious package is found,” added Cuellar.
During events that draw large crowds of people, like Leesburg’s Bikefest, and during large-scale emergency response incidents like Blue Rhino’s propane fire and Summer Bay Resort’s sinkhole, the team lends assistance and monitors the scene.
The members of Lake County’s SORT are required to complete one month of HazMat training and one-to-two weeks each of structural collapse, ropes, confined space and vehicle machinery rescue training each year, in addition to regular fire rescue training.
“In my opinion, Lake County should be proud of the performance of its HazMat (SORT) team. This team approached the assessment with the confidence that they could score as well as the larger teams in the metropolitan area,” said Stilp. “The training and expertise of this team excelled and demonstrated the true commitment toward serving their fire department and protecting their community.”
For more information about Lake County’s SORT Team, contact the Public Safety Department at 352-343-9458.