How first responders deal with chemical exposures

Hydrogen sulfide discovered at 21 Pearl. (KXAN Photo)
Hydrogen sulfide discovered at 21 Pearl. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After a day spent at the hospital, Lisa Alexander is back at work managing 21 Pearl, the apartment complex that was evacuated on Wednesday after first responders discovered what appeared to be hydrogen sulfide in the building. The man who died in the incident was identified Thursday as 20-year-old Richard Truong.

Alexander said while she didn’t go into the student’s room that was filled with the chemicals, just being in the proximity caused her to cough. She said emergency workers strongly recommended she go to the hospital because of her coughing. Five other people in the building were also treated and released from the hospital.

The Austin Fire Department says when they responded to the building they found a sign on the student’s door that read: “Danger: Watch out, hydrogen sulfide.” Inside the room, they found Truong who was in cardiac arrest. Medics were unable to resuscitate him.

While the student’s cause of death is still being determined, authorities alluded to the possibility he used the deadly gas to commit suicide. “This is not an uncommon method of chemical suicide,” says AFD Division Chief Palmer Buck. “You can search on the internet to see some of the different ways this is done.”

Farah Kamal is one of thousands living in West Campus apartments, popular with UT students. “We literally thought it was rotten trash or something like that in the apartment,” said Kamal.

It turns out, she lived next door to the apartment containing hazardous materials.

“Everybody was evacuated and that’s when I realized it might be something serious,” said Kamal.

It’s the kind of call that requires special training for emergency crews. Captain Travis Maher of Austin Fire Special Operations says the initial assessment is key. Firefighters responding to 21 Pearl suspected hydrogen sulfide right away.

“In a confined environment they can be deadly, but as you get out of that confined environment, as things reduce, it can become more of an irritant,” said Captain Maher.

That information told firefighters they could enter the room, but only with their breathing apparatus already going.

“This is a completely closed circuit. They breathe air from the bottle and they breathe out into the ambient air. Everything they breathe is contained in the cylinders,” Maher said.

They decided to use their “shelter in place” strategy and not go around knocking door-to-door. “We opened up doors and windows. We ventilated to reduce those levels. Then we evacuated everybody. It’s actually a safer way to do it,” he said.

That’s why Farah Kamal had to leave the building, but was able to come back and stay in her own bed that same night.

“I have to give them props. They handled it all very efficiently,” said Kamal.

Austin fire has three levels of hazardous material training: awareness, operation and technician.  All firefighters have operational training. The 160 members of the Battalion 6 Special Operations Unit are trained as technicians.

The Austin Apartment Association also recommends property managers prepare for this kind of situation to make sure you stay safe. They say a plan must be in place for how to respond to hazardous chemical exposures and it should be passed onto residents. There should also be an on-call manager who can implement the plan at any time. They say property managers should track how all chemicals are used in a building, including items needed to clean apartment pools.

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