ZEELAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Ottawa County is taking steps to be better prepared for disasters.
The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners recently approved $150,000 to make sure fire departments have what they need to fight a chemical fire.
It’s a special foam, fitting inside relatively small trailers, that can make a big difference in stopping chemical fires.
“The small cost of foam pales in comparison to the damage that not having this in place would be allowed to take place,” Ottawa County Commissioner Jacob Bonnema told News 8.
After the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Bonnema asked if Ottawa County is prepared if something like that ever happens here in West Michigan.
“I was speaking to Director Lou Hunt, who’s the head of emergency management, and he said they could use better tools to fight chemical fires in Ottawa County,” Bonnema recalled.
In the late 2010s, the state took tens of thousands of gallons of firefighting foam from fire departments because it contained toxic PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The foam is essential for fighting chemical fires.
“The fumes from (a chemical fire) are far more damaging to the area around it,” the commissioner said. “The fire is much more difficult to put out. Putting a fire foam layer on top of that smothers that fire, deprives it of oxygen and puts it out faster.”
Hunt told Bonnema that since the state collected the foam, many fire departments didn’t have enough of it. Zeeland Fire Chief Ross Tibbets also told Bonnema about the shortage.
“The majority of fire departments do carry some foam on their trucks but not nearly enough to fight a larger scale incident,” Bonnema said.
During a meeting on March 23, fire chiefs from 24 jurisdictions unanimously recommended the plan to buy three trailers filled with a new foam that is environmentally safe and PFAS-free.
“The trailers, they’re really cool,” Bonnema said. “They’ve got a foam cannon on the front of them. They’ve got IBC tanks on the back, and I think they’re between 250 and 500 gallons of foam each.”
The board of commissioners, politically split for much of the year, then came together and unanimously approved the $125,000 for the foam-filled trailers.
“I think this shows that as commissioners we should be able to look at things like public safety and be unanimous,” Bonnema said.
Local jurisdictions will cover the other $125,000 to make it happen. Bonnema said the plan won’t raise taxes.
Richard Van Dorp, a member of the Zeeland City Council, also supported the plan in an interview with News 8.
“It was brought to my attention fairly recently we don’t have these available to us anymore,” he said. “There are dangers out there … it’s a nice collaboration for us all to work together to make sure the people are safe here in Ottawa County.”
The equipment will be strategically placed at Ferrysburg, Holland Township and Allendale Fire Departments.
“When the fire chiefs got together and talked about the biggest risks, they were looking for fuel depots, railyards, places that were large manufacturers like a chemical manufacturing plant,” Bonnema said.
With the funding approved, the next step is finding a manufacturer to build the trailers.
“Post-COVID era, we’re still dealing with some supply chain issues and aluminum shortages,” Bonnema said.
The goal is to have the equipment ready to go by the end of the year or early next year.
“We can’t control all the manufacturing hiccups along the way, but we want to make sure we get it here as quickly as possible because this is a very real risk in Ottawa County,” he said.