Hazmat coordinator Joseph Leonetti
said that in the days immediately following receipt of a
contaminated letter in the office of U.S. Senator Thomas Daschle
in Washington, which touched off the national scare, his
decontamination team responded to some 100 alarms in New Castle
County. The calls ranged upward to servicing 17 employees of the
Jo-Ann Fabrics shop in Tri-State Mall and removing suspected
rubbish from the home of a Newark woman who had been
No anthrax nor
anthrax-related material has been found in Delaware.
Nevertheless, Gerald Llewellyn, chief of the toxicology branch
of the state Division of Public Health, said all 'credible
threats' are being fully evaluated and samples of possible
offending material analyzed.
Although it was decided after a string of 18-hour duty days to
designate the mobile decontamination unit a second line of
defense backing up initial police and Department of Natural
Resources & Environmental Control response, there has been no
lessening of the state of alert, Leonetti said.
"We have to treat everything as real," he said, adding
that the unit can be manned and rolling from its base at
the Elsmere Fire Company station in 20 minutes or less.
The hazmat decontamination unit is a large trailer, valued
at about $100,000, which is towed behind an emergency van.
The self-contained facility has everything necessary for
on-site decontamination, including protective equipment
and a bank of showers. 'Hazmat' is the abbreviated form of
Elsmere and more recently the neighboring Cranston Heights
company took on a decontamination specialty about 15 years
ago in order to be prepared to deal with chemical
incidents in the CSX Railroad yard. "We realized that no
one was sure what to do so we needed a decontamination
team within the company," he explained. Leonetti was
Elsmere fire chief at the time.
There are now
about 100 fully trained volunteer firefighters from
Joseph Leonetti explains the features of the mobile
several companies available for duty and
the mobile unit can be sent anywhere, including out of state,
under the mutual-aid arrangement among companies.
At about the same time Elsmere was adopting its specialty,
Congress in 1986 enacted national 'superfund' legislation which
provided for local emergency planning committees charged with
developing plans to protect communities from chemical hazards.
Delaware has such committees in each county and in the city of
State Representative David
Ennis, who chairs the New Castle County committee, said that the
panel's emphasis on preparedness long predates the September 11
terrorist attacks and what now appears to be biological
terrorism. "An awful lot of effort has gone into preparing us to
deal with chemical hazards and, as a result, I think we can say
we're ready to deal with bioterrorism," he said.
Leonetti added that Delaware is the only state which has a fully
coordinated statewide response capability. "Big cities have it,
but right now there are a lot of places that can only wish they
had what we have," he said. In part, of course, that has to do
with the fact the state is small, but there are other factors.
For one, Delaware historically has been associated with the
chemical industry and has readily available expertise to deal
with emergencies. Ennis said his involvement with the emergency
planning process began with participation in such an effort
initiated by companies with facilities in the Edgemoor-Claymont
"The thing I can't emphasize too
much is that a lot of this is being accomplished by volunteers,"
He and Leonetti said there is
a fine line between caution and overreaction. "What people see
on T.V. is going to affect them. We can only hope they will use
common sense in deciding what should be reported," Leonetti
A problem that has begun to be
felt is the difficulty in obtaining replacement material, he
added. By nature, decontamination is a one-time process.
Protective suits, for instance, have to be replaced after a
single use. "We're finding it harder and harder to get supplies
-- the federal government is buying them up," he said.
Ennis said that is largely counterproductive. "The local effort
is our first line of defense," he said.