OKLAHOMA CITY — The air was putrid at two Interstate 40 bridges in south Oklahoma City.
Firefighters serving on the hazardous materials response team at first thought it was raw sewage coating the bridge floors on Western Avenue and Shields Boulevard.
Lt. Wiley Gabehart said the first priority when the team arrived the morning of Feb. 21 was to make sure the slime did not spill into the Oklahoma River. Then the cleanup process began, and it would last for nearly eight hours.
The stinky mess turned out to be animal byproducts that spilled from a tank being hauled on the back of a truck, The Oklahoman reported. The lid on the tank had not been properly tightened.
“What was there looked like raw sewage. It had a lot of paper, what you would think would be in a septic tank,” Gabehart said.
“For us it was an unusual scene,” Gabehart said. “We’d classify that as a biohazards call.”
Fire Battalion Chief Benny Fulkerson said it was an example of the type of hazardous scene where his department does more than battle fires. Crews train extensively to be prepared for such work.
He said the incident was among the more uncommon calls he’s seen hazardous materials crews respond to.
“Among the weird things, this one ranks up there pretty good,” Fulkerson said.
He said ammonia, chlorine, natural gas and fuel leaks are far more common, with firefighters responding to those calls nearly daily across the metro area.
Most of the calls the crews respond to involve vehicle accidents where fuel has spilled. If more than 10 gallons of fuel spills in a crash, the hazardous materials crew will be called.
The department responded to 310 hazardous materials calls last year. Fulkerson said more than 70 of the department’s firefighters are certified as hazmat technicians, which is the highest of the hazardous material training tiers.
Although fire crews rarely have to don the orange Level A containment suits, Fulkerson said, wearing them means they are protected from contact with liquids or gasses, and each are supplied with a breathing apparatus that provides about 30 minutes of oxygen.
Hazardous materials crews are also routinely needed at house fires, where firefighters might have to be decontaminated from toxic materials created by burning televisions or other plastic products.