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A specially trained group of volunteer firefighters in the South Towns is ready and willing -- but not necessarily eager -- to respond to emergencies involving hazardous substances.

"We're confident we could handle any incident that might occur, but we hope the worst never happens," said Dean Messing, leader and chairman of the South Towns Hazardous Materials Response Team.

The team has about 40 active members and an overall membership of about 100, representing 31 volunteer fire companies.

The team officially became available Nov. 1, four years after members of the Hamburg Fire Chiefs Association decided that there was a need for special equipment and training to handle emergencies involving toxic materials.

A gasoline truck that flipped and burned in May 1986 in Hamburg helped prompt formation of the team.

"It took us about 12 hours to contain it because we didn't have the proper equipment," Messing recalled. "You can't just put water on a fire anymore."

With some of the chemicals now being used, he pointed out, the use of water might be the worst thing to do.

The special needs of dealing with hazardous materials beyond the scope and budget of most fire companies prompted the regional approach. But the region could not be too large or the plan would become too cumbersome and the resources would be spread too thin.

Eight towns -- Hamburg, Orchard Park, West Seneca, Colden, Evans, Boston, Eden and Brant -- and five villages -- Blasdell, Hamburg, Orchard Park, Angola and Farnham -- are in the area served by the team.

A total of $271,000 from the state over two years has been secured for training and equipment as a result of efforts by state Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Buffalo, and the rest of the local delegation to the State Legislature, Messing said.

A used school bus has been converted into a mobile command post that contains a computer programmed with data on thousands of chemicals and how to handle them, plus cellular phones and radios.

A used van serves as a light-equipment vehicle, carrying air packs, protective suits, patching material and testing equipment.

There are plans to add a heavy-equipment vehicle for such items as portable ponds and shower units for decontamination.

A third vehicle probably will not be added until after the team finds a permanent location that includes a three-bay garage. The two vehicles are kept in the Town of Boston's old highway garage, but a more central location is being sought, probably in Hamburg or Orchard Park, said Messing.

The team has an extensive library of training tapes and also a video recorder so each response can be taped "to see what we did right and what we did wrong," said Messing, a past chief of the Armor Volunteer Fire Company in Hamburg, who is county emergency services coordinator.

Team members have undergone extensive training and conduct additional training sessions about once a week.

The team will respond only if requested by the incident commander, usually a fire chief, who will remain in charge of the situation.

Co-leaders of the team are Frank Bermel of the Windom Fire Company in Orchard Park, Vincent Pupo Jr. of the Woodlawn Fire Department in Hamburg -- who also is senior fire investigator for the Sheriff's Department -- and Allen Nowak of Seneca Hose in West Seneca.

So far, the team has been involved in only one incident, when it lent technical advise on a feed mill fire in Hamburg.

"We've got a good group of dedicated volunteers," Messing said, "and we're there to help any way we can."

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