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St. Lawrence County hazmat team will be restored

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators made a preliminary decision Monday to maintain a paid hazardous materials mitigation team and restore funding for training rather than switch to a volunteer force.

Emergency Services Director Joseph M. Gilbert recommended that the county dissolve the paid team — which is made up mostly of Ogdensburg and Massena firefighters, rescue squad personnel and police — in favor of a volunteer group as a way of saving money and being on an even playing field with consortium partners from neighboring counties, all of which have the service provided by volunteers.

The county Fire Advisory Board did not support Mr. Gilbert’s suggestion, instead preferring to have a private company hired through a request for proposals.

The issue has come to the forefront because of a lack of money for training over the past year that persuaded hazmat chief of operations Allen S. Rickett to put the service on hold in March.

“I basically put the hazmat team out of service,” he said.

The group was formed after Sept. 11 as a way of reacting to incidents in which hazardous materials were present. At the time, a paid team was formed because volunteers were not forthcoming. Mr. Rickett predicted the same problem if the county switched to an unpaid service.

“I don’t know where you’re going to get your people from,” he said.

Mr. Gilbert pointed to the thousands of volunteers who give their time to the dive team, and as fire investigators, firefighters, rescue squad workers and instructors.

“I don’t think St. Lawrence County in this one instance would fail,” he said.

He estimated the annual cost of ongoing training for the 16 members of the hazmat team at $25,000 to $35,000, plus $10,000 for wages. The team has responded to four incidents in recent years, including a laboratory fire at SUNY Canton.

Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, said he thought it made more sense to rework a deal with the municipalities of Ogdensburg and Massena to help pay for the salaries of the team members than to try to attract volunteers.

Training a team of volunteers might cost $5,000, Mr. Gilbert said.

But many legislators were unconvinced.

“You have the cost at $5,000 and you still don’t know if we’re going to have volunteers,” said Legislator Gregory M. Paquin, D-Massena.

Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said he wanted a resolution to restore funding for training ready by the board’s next committee meeting.

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