Environmental Factor, November 2009, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
NIEHS-Funded Training for HazMat Emergency Response in American Samoa
By Laura Hall
In June 2009, University of California, Davis Extension (UCDE) instructors taught three health and safety courses for handling hazardous materials and emergency response in American Samoa on the main island of Tutuila. The classes were funded by an NIEHS Workers Education and Training Program (WETP)(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/careers/hazmat/about_wetp.cfm) grant to the Western Region Universities Consortium (WRUC) which includes UCDE. The attendees were American Samoan residents who could be involved in the first hours of a hazardous materials incident, including public safety, public works and community health personnel, and village mayors.
The need for training Pacific islanders in hazardous materials management became evident three months later. On September 29, a strong underwater earthquake followed by a tsunami caused widespread damage in American Samoa with 22 deaths and some villages along the coasts destroyed. In response, President Obama declared American Samoa a disaster area.
The WRUC grant targets underrepresented minorities including Pacific islanders. The grantees collaborate with community and tribal organizations to tailor training to specific needs. One of the American Samoan classes, Pulenu'u Health and Safety Training, was a one-day First Responder Awareness program designed for the village mayors, or pulenu'us. The course was suggested by Judith McCoy, training coordinator of American Samoa Department of Homeland Defense. It incorporated specific safety needs of the islanders such as handling hazardous materials safely, dealing with drums containing unknown materials and the dangers of compressed gas cylinders, with a role-playing "Tsunami Emergency Group Exercise."
Sixteen village mayors and six interns attended the course. Janis Heple, academic coordinator at UCDE said, "The mayors noted that they could see the need for this information to be communicated directly to their villages." Instructor Les Omans said that "from the verbal feedback and questions, I am confident that the mayors found the course interesting, informative and entertaining."
In the other two courses, 46 participants were trained in best practices for handling hazardous materials and managing incidents. Participants utilized the factual knowledge gained from the first course in the role playing exercises of the second. They practiced the roles they would have to play in an actual emergency, such as blocking off roads, in a mock incident. The exercises were customized for locales on the island.
WETP is a part of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) which plans and directs the institute's grants programs. The WETP funds non-profit organizations to provide occupational safety and health education to train workers to identify and prevent hazardous exposures, to handle hazardous materials, and to respond to emergency releases of materials.
(Laura Hall is a biologist in the NIEHS Laboratory of Pharmacology currently on detail as a writer for the Environmental Factor.)