Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Anti-terror grants helped Unified Fire Authority prepare hazmat unit.

Local firefighters who assisted federal agents in searching a Riverton home for ricin last week say they will be ready if the deadly toxin is ever discovered in Utah.

"We are extremely prepared," said Unified Fire Authority Capt. Bart Vawdrey.

Tuesday, firefighters put thousands of dollars' worth of detection and decontamination equipment on display in Kearns.

The presentation came on the same day Las Vegas officials investigated a report of an unidentified white powder in a hotel room, less than a week after ricin was discovered in a motel room there.

Authorities say a substance found Tuesday in a room at the Excalibur hotel-casino is not hazardous but have not disclosed what the substance is.

The man wasn't sickened and hotel business was not interrupted after he reported returning to his room and finding the powder on his bed about 9 a.m.

With an increased number of scares in recent years, local officials said their training and equipment are keeping up thanks in large part to an increased number of anti-terrorism grants made available after 9/11.

"Ten years ago, we were basically using a chemistry set in a tackle box," Vawdrey said. "The grants have been huge for us."'

A decade ago, firefighters burned a potentially hazardous chemical, using the color of the flame and the chemical's odor to identify it.

"It wasn't the healthiest way, but it's what we did," Vawdrey said.

Local firefighters are now armed with top-of-the-line equipment.

"If we put Arm and Hammer baking soda on this," Vawdrey said, pointing to a machine that uses infrared technology to analyze chemicals, "the library is so extensive that it tells us it's Arm and Hammer baking soda."

The UFA has at least nine people, each with more than 200 hours of training, on the clock, ready for a potential hazmat situation.

If a problem is reported, the UFA uses weather equipment to analyze wind and plume projections to determine which areas need to be evacuated. Crews also have cameras that allow them to search a home without going inside.

The department uses three types of hazmat suits. In helping with the Riverton search, firefighters used Level B suits, a medium-level protective outfit, Vawdrey said.

"Ricin will have a hard time getting through your skin," he said. "It's extremely toxic, but it's hard to weaponize."

In assisting federal agents last week in Riverton, the UFA used its decontamination trailer — another purchase made with grant money — to rinse potentially contaminated searchers and dispose of their suits.

"It's an extremely streamlined process," Vawdrey said. "We're ready for a situation like that."

Contributing: The Associated Press

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