BARRE – City councilors were told during an emergency meeting Wednesday night that when it comes to gear that was potentially contaminated by asbestos in a late-December fire “doing nothing” probably isn’t an option, doing something could cost as much as $235,000, and where that money will come from is still anybody’s guess.
Less than 24 hours after learning that the city’s $10.5 million budget request went down in flames, councilors met with the chief and assistant chief of their fire department and three other “experts” who they have asked to collectively craft a recommendation for their consideration next Tuesday.
At issue is a lingering concern that firefighters’ turnout gear and other “porous” equipment – from high-pressure fire hoses to straps for everything from helmets to self-contained breathing apparatus – were contaminated during – and immediately after – the Dec. 20, 2012 fire at Houle Brothers’ Granite plant on South Front Street.
City officials belatedly learned that there was a significant amount of a rare asbestos material in the fire-damaged facility and its friable fibers likely rained down on firefighters when they ripped into the roof of the building in an attempt to keep the early morning blaze from spreading and assisted in “overhaul” efforts later in the day.
All of that equipment has since been cleaned to the best of the department’s ability and remains in service because, Chief Tim Bombardier noted, “shutting the doors of the firehouse” isn’t really an option.
However, Bombardier has since pitched a plan to replace all of that equipment at a projected cost of $235,000. Roughly half of that expense – nearly $115,000 – is tied to a proposal to replace 40 sets of turnout gear that is currently being used by the department’s 17 full-time firefighters, as well as members of its call force and cadet program. The balance would cover the cost of equipment – most notably cloth fire hoses.
Heading into Wednesday’s meeting, Bombardier had indicated there really wasn’t any other option, because the personal protective equipment couldn’t be tested for the presence of asbestos fibers without being destroyed and no one would clean it and certify that it was “asbestos-free.”
“I believe, based on everything I know at this point, that we need to replace our porous gear,” Bombardier said. “I haven’t heard anything to date that would make me change that opinion.”
Moments later Fred Satink, loss control specialist for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, offered what might be a reasonable alternative – at least with respect to the turnout gear. He said he had spoken with one out-of-state firm earlier in the day that provides precisely that sort of cleaning service the city would need.
According to Satink, the “advanced cleaning” process, which is conducted in accordance with applicable National Fire Protection Association standards, costs $81 per coat, $81 per pair of pants. Once the cleaning is complete, he said the company sends out representative samples of the garments to an independent lab for analysis using a “non-destructive” test. That analysis, he said, costs $325 per garment and it would be up to the city to decide whether to test one, some or all of the garments.
“This is a fairly reasonable option to consider and I would encourage you to do that,” Satink told the council.
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