CAMDEN – A state pilot program to locate and identify hazardous materials left behind or discarded in abandoned urban buildings, and which may pose a threat to firefighters, emergency responders and residents, has been established by the Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Emergency Response, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin announced today.
The first target of new the “Boots on the Ground” program is the city of Camden, where a team of investigators from a host of agencies this summer completed inspections of 31 select abandoned warehouses, industrial and commercial buildings — that seemed to have the highest potential for housing dangerous materials — and analyzed the contents at each location.
The data has been fed into a Geographic Information System (GIS) program, which will be available to police and emergency personnel, through mobile computer systems or dispatching services. Should a fire break out or emergency situation arise at one of these abandoned sites, first responders and dispatchers now have electronic access to the property’s profile and can immediately learn what hazards may exist.
“This is all about public health and safety, providing an important tool for police, fire and emergency personnel to deal with hazards they may encounter in very dangerous situations,’’ Martin said. “With this information readily available, first responders in Camden will have a road map to allow them to quickly understand what volatile or hazardous materials they may encounter at abandoned premises. It is a tool we hope to expand to other vulnerable communities across the state in the coming years.’’
A spate of dangerous fires in abandoned buildings in Camden in 2011 served as impetus for the pilot program, said DEP Director of Emergency Management Robert Van Fossen.
“We believe each of these property profiles will benefit firefighters in terms of safety, while also reducing the risk of larger chemical fires that have occurred in Camden,” said State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes, who oversees the state Office of Emergency Management. “It also offers more protection to residences and businesses located near these abandoned structures.’’
“This program enables emergency personnel to have a better understanding of the risks posed by a fire or other type of emergency at one of these sites, and allows for better coordination of the response and recovery efforts,” said Edward Dickson, Director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.
The DEP is considering extending the program to another New Jersey city in 2013.
Partnering with DEP and OEM in launching the program are the state Office of Homeland Security, state Division of Fire Safety, Camden fire and police departments, Camden Department of Public Works and the Office of City Attorney, as well as PSE&G and the United Water Co.
“Given the numerous vacant and abandoned properties within the city, this new pilot program will provide our first responders with the critical and necessary information they need to properly battle a fire if one was to occur at any of these properties,” said Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd. “We thank DEP, OEM and all the agencies involved for creating this pilot program which will make our first responders and Camden residents safer.”
Property inspections of abandoned buildings and properties that began in Camden last December turned up minimal amounts of hazardous chemicals and toxic materials, but found combustible materials that could fuel fires. Included were drums filled with waste oil, propane tanks, paints, air and gas cylinders, and different types of solid waste, including tires, paper, wood waste and construction debris. Other hazards that included syringes, needles, mold, blood, feces, wild and domestic animals, and holes in building floors that could be deadly traps for responders.
In addition to content, each property profile lists the construction type of each structure, whether or not it is still powered by gas or electricity, and the presence of any underground storage tanks. Additional mapping shows each building’s proximity to fire hydrants, hospitals and schools.
“Even non-hazardous materials present a serious safety risk during a fire,” Van Fossen said. “The Boots on the Ground program provides any responder a crucial knowledge base before entering a potentially dangerous situation.”
“This effort will enable us to identify situations and conditions that would alert responders to hazards and potential problems such as flammable contents and collapse potential,,” added Camden Department of Public Works Director Patrick Keating.
A next longer-term step in this effort will be to identify owners of these abandoned buildings and have them remove dangerous materials, at their cost. The DEP also will seek to identify potential funding to finance cleanups when owners can’t be found or have no resources.
This program is part of the DEP’s focus on overburdened communities, such as Camden, whose residents deal with the cumulative impacts of many sources of pollution. Currently, DEP has more than 20 active programs and activities involving Camden, including remediation of the Harrison Landfill in the Cramer Hill section, which will clear the way for the construction and operation of the new Salvation Army Camden Community Center.
Camden also has embarked on some important environmental initiatives. As part of an effort called Operation Hawk Eye, Camden police last year charged 20 individuals accused of illegally dumping debris and materials in three of the city’s neighborhoods. Mayor Redd also recently announced the city would move to enhance recycling, starting by distributing 65 gallon recycling containers to Camden businesses that pledged to begin separating their recyclables.
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