WOODBURY The Gloucester County hazardous-materials team should meet and train more regularly, coordinate better with county public safety agencies, and develop a long-term plan to improve performance, an investigative panel concluded in a review of the team's response to last year's train derailment and chemical spill in Paulsboro.
The county appointed the three-person panel in January, after a dozen firefighters from Washington Township quit the countywide Hazmat team, saying the air-monitoring equipment they used while responding to the toxic spill was inoperable.
The county disagreed, saying "inadequate familiarity with the equipment" was to blame, according to the report.
The firefighters said faulty equipment prevented them from accurately detecting their level of chemical exposure. More broadly, they questioned the county's leadership and commitment to emergency preparedness. The panel did not address that accusation.
At least one critic was disappointed with the panel's findings.
"It doesn't even mention that firefighters were exposed to a toxic chemical," said Sam Micklus, chairman of the Washington Township Board of Fire Commissioners.
The panel was composed of Bill Volk, mayor of Woodbury and a former fire chief; Dennis P. McNulty, a retired New Jersey state police officer; and Phil Zimm, president of the Gloucester County Fire Chiefs and Fire Officers Association.
In its report - dated Thursday and obtained by The Inquirer before being presented to the freeholder board Wednesday - the panel says it interviewed many of the local people involved in the response to the Nov. 30, 2012, derailment, which occurred when a Conrail freight train went onto a movable bridge over Mantua Creek.
Four tanker cars fell into the water, with one breaching and releasing toxic vinyl chloride into the atmosphere.
Hundreds of residents, businesses, and first responders have sued Conrail and its parent companies.
The panel is advisory and does not have the authority to enact changes, though County Administrator Chad Bruner has said the freeholder board would consider its recommendations.
The panel acknowledged the fractured relationship between the Hazmat team and the county Department of Emergency Response, and suggested that both sides could do more to improve preparedness.
For example, the panel cited poor attendance at training sessions and inadequate instruction and drill preparation as reasons why the team's training regimen had "eroded" over the past few years.
The report says the team failed to maintain training records and was unfamiliar with standard operating procedures.
To resolve such problems, the investigators recommended that team leaders conduct monthly meetings; that training be held at least once every other month; and that regular practice with all equipment be provided. The panel also said federal funding for emergency response had declined significantly, and recommended finding new sources of financing.
The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the incident.
In June, the state issued 12 violations to the county Emergency Response Center for "unsafe or unhealthful working conditions." The violations, marked as "serious," included not providing first responders with a medical examination or consultation immediately after the emergency.
The county and the state Department of Health have said those violations were addressed appropriately.