APEX, N.C. — Risk is part of the job for the police and emergency crews who responded to last Thursday's chemical fire at a hazardous-waste disposal facility in Apex.
Officers have been praised for helping residents get out, but could the police have been better prepared? Apex Police Chief Jack Lewis said he believes they could have.
When the call came, Apex police officers responded, unsure of the health threat to the public or themselves.
"We take risk based on what we know at the time," Lewis said.
Lewis said he felt people needed help, so he sent his officers into the area of the fire. Paid to protect, they went in unprotected with no gas masks. More than a dozen officers were sent to the hospital with mild burns and breathing problems.
"Did I get a really sick feeling when I had officers that were sick and were being transported to the hospital? The answer is, 'Absolutely, yes,'" Lewis said.
Months earlier Lewis started buying gas masks. But because of regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the masks required detailed fit and breathing tests.
The problem: not all the needed components were purchased. The masks were not ready and could not be used.
Lewis pointed out that the chemical fire was a complicated situation. Even with the better equipment, he said he worries about the psychological effect on residents if officers went door to door in gas masks asking people to leave their homes.
In a random sampling of Wake County law enforcement, WRAL found that most agencies have masks, but many are not properly fitted.
For example, every North Carolina Highway Patrol trooper is issued a standard mask, mostly for irritants such as pepper spray. About 200 troopers have higher-level apparatus to deal with other chemicals.
Still, Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Everett Clendenin said the masks are not designed for helping others.
"Our training and policy is for the officers -- should they find themselves in this type of environment -- to get out of that environment," Clendenin said. "It's for escape only."
Whether it is escape or aiding evacuations, Lewis said he bears responsibility for his officers.
"It's my job to give them the best training, the best supervision and provide for them the best equipment so they'll be as safe as they possibly can," Lewis said. " I feel like maybe I didn't do that."