Emergency Manager’s hard work pays off, Finance Committee sends hazmat foam to full board for approval
Published April 5, 2023
Written by Adams
Photography by Simply American
“We are not immune from a potential incident as we are seeing in Ohio,” Chief Tibbets explained. “A lot of our communities have rail lines running through, along with our various chemical facilities.”
Ottawa County Hazmat And Tech Rescue Team
Ottawa County is truly blessed. In 2003, Ottawa County’s Hazardous Materials and Technical Rescue Team was formed. It is a cooperative effort between Ottawa County, the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Management, and the county’s fire departments. The county funds half of the budget and the fire departments in Ottawa County fund the other half.
The Hazmat Team responds to hazardous materials events, such as large fuel leaks at auto accidents, train derailments, and chemical facility accidents.
Ottawa County’s Technical Rescue Team conducts rescues and supports in complicated situations. Compromised structures, collapse, confined spaces, high-angle rope rescues, shoring, and cribbing trench accidents are examples.
In 2019, the state confiscated the county’s fire foam due to its PFAS content but provided no solutions. A replacement for the fire foam is needed to fight chemical fires because they do not respond to water.
Fire foam works by creating a protective blanket over blazes, starving them of oxygen and preventing non-flammable liquids from forming flammable gases. Ottawa County has a large volume of chemicals produced here, used in manufacturing and agriculture, and traveling over county roads, rails and skies. The most significant risk identified is in downtown Zeeland, but large risks are also presented by Holland and Ferrysburg fuel terminals. In addition, Ottawa County has increased rail traffic due to the need for fertilizer for agriculture.
When the state took Ottawa’s fire foam, it left the county with a gap. In a presentation on March 7, 2023, to the Board of Commissioner’s Planning and Policy Committee, Fire Chief Ross Tibbets told the board there are new fire foams available that work well and also have a unique property of vapor suppression. However, the new foams are expensive.
In 2022, the team applied for a $235,000 grant from Ottawa County’s ARPA funds. The money would buy three fire fighting foam trailers to help the Hazmat Rescue Team deal with hazardous materials disasters like recently occurred in Ohio.
Each trailer would come with 530 gallons of foam, plumbing, and nozzles to work in concert with city and township department pumper trucks. Fire departments located in Ferrysburg, Allendale, and Holland agreed to store, maintain, and deliver the trailers for mutual aid across the county.
The ARPA request was detailed by Holland Fire Chief Jim Kohsel, and included letters of support from the Ottawa Area Fire Chiefs Association Chair, Fire Chief Mike Keefe. The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office and Ottawa County Emergency Management also provided support.
The 2021-2022 Board of Commissioners prioritized other projects in the $40+ million spent on ARPA in 2022, and the ARPA request for the fire foam was not fulfilled.
When Undersheriff Valerie Weiss and Fire Chief Ross Tibbets came to the Planning and Policy Board in February of 2023, they were looking for guidance on funding. Commissioner Gretchen Cosby, Finance Chair, set up a meeting with Emergency Manager Lou Hunt and Fire Chief Tibbets. She was curious to learn more about the product’s qualities, the safety of the product chosen, and desired to help figure out the best way forward.
At the meeting, they spoke about the importance of the trailers and different products that could work. A fire fighting gel is also available but there was a concern it wouldn’t work with the equipment.
Emergency Manager Hunt and the team continued to bounce ideas off area fire departments. Emergency Manager Hunt and Chief Tibbets told Commissioner Cosby that rarely do fire departments agree on products, but they all agree a fire foam product will work. The county and the Hazmat Team had done their due diligence in selection of the product. Selection criteria prioritized that the product should not only work well, but also have the least amount of environmental impact on the county.
The team also had a plan in mind for future costs. A Cost Recovery Ordinance is in place so if the foam is used, those at fault in the incident will be charged to replace it.
After meeting with the team and seeing the incredible work they were doing, Cosby was grateful for everyone involved with Ottawa County’s Hazardous Materials and Technical Rescue Team.
With the collaborative efforts of Emergency Manager Lou Hunt, Chief Tibbets, Undersheriff Weiss and the entire Hazmat/Tech Rescue Team, approval of the foam fighting trailers was put on the agenda for the April 4 Finance and Administration meeting.
The motion was made to “approve and forward to the Board of Commissioners a request to fund Foam Firefighting Trailers from the Hazardous Material Rescue Team operating budget, in which the county would pay 50% of the cost, or $125,000.”
The remaining 50% would be paid by the local jurisdictions. Fire Chiefs from 24 jurisdictions had met previously on March 21, 2023, and gave unanimous support for the plan.
“Extraordinary efforts by your teams,” Cosby commended at the Finance and Administration meeting.
The motion was approved unanimously and will be brought forward to the Board of Commissioners for a final vote on April 11, 2023.
Here at Simply American, we want to thank our first responders in Ottawa County. And a very special thank you to the Executive Committee of the Ottawa County Hazardous Materials and Technical Rescue Teams—Chair, Holland Twp. Fire Chief Kohsel, Chief Tibbets, Undersheriff Wiess, Chief Keefe, Ottawa County Finance Director, Karen Karansinski, all of our local fire departments, the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Manager Lou Hunt and his team.
When every second and every minute matters, our First Responders need the tools necessary to protect the county.