NEW YORK, April 15, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- Verizon's elite Major Emergency Response Incident Team, called MERIT, is celebrating 20 years of service as it continues to protect thousands of miles of the company's communications network assets during natural disasters or hazardous materials incidents. This week, the 30-member MERIT team, which includes eight of the original members, is assembling in the Dallas metro area to participate in Verizon's national disaster recovery and hazmat exercises. Training at the national and regional drills enables team members to perfect their hazmat skills and complete the mandatory annual recertification. Founded in 1993, MERIT was the first such team in the industry. "Verizon has network facilities that we protect from all kinds of hazards, but we can't always control the external environment," said Dick Price, chief business continuity officer for Verizon Communications. "That's why we created MERIT. We needed technically skilled communications employees who could be trained in hazardous materials, enabling them to enter an area affected by a hazardous materials spill and complete a network repair. And now, 20 years later, we are still going strong." MERIT is comprised of fulltime Verizon employees including communications technicians and specialists, building engineers, and environmental health and safety professionals. All team members have daily responsibilities in their specialties and have been trained under Occupational Safety and Health Administration and National Fire Protection Association guidelines, the same certification guidelines used by fire department hazardous materials teams in the U.S. MERIT members, who are also trained in emergency response management, are authorized to operate at the highest operational protection level, Level A, which allows them to enter a containment zone, wearing fully encapsulated hazmat suits. The team uses multiple tools to detect chemical and radiological contamination. Through the years, the team has responded to protect Verizon's network assets during numerous events including Hurricanes Sandy, Irene and Katrina; the Colorado Springs Waldo Canyon wildfire; terrorist attacks in New York City and the Washington, D.C., area; floods in Iowa, Texas and Pennsylvania; and industrial fires and train derailments nationwide. The team also deployed to a postal distribution facility in Trenton, N.J., that had been contaminated by anthrax after the September 2001 attacks and successfully re-established data communications inside the contaminated building. (Photos of the Verizon MERIT hazmat team can be downloaded here.) "During all deployments, our No. 1 goal is safety," said Dennis DeRolf, Verizon MERIT coordinator. "We know we have a serious job to do to repair the network or enter a technical facility, but safety must always come before we do anything at the site of the incident." With nationwide network operations, Verizon's hazmat team members are assigned to three diverse regions – the Northeast, Southeast and West. Equipment is also staged in multiple locations nationwide for immediate transport by land or by air.