What is in this article?:
- How to Respond to, and Possibly Prevent, Pipeline Incidents
- Don’t Reinvent the Training Wheel
(Appeared in print as "Beneath the Surface")
On Sept. 14, 2008, external corrosion caused a 50-year-old section of pipeline near Appomattox, Va., to explode. The pressure sent 30 feet of steel flying, and the concussion damaged several power lines. A spark from the power lines ignited the natural gas, creating a 300-foot fireball that destroyed two homes, damaged more than 100 others and injured five residents within the danger zone.
An equally loud but slightly less calamitous gas-pressure explosion preceded it. That one managed to leave a crater 37 feet across and 15 feet deep.
Pipeline operators use transmission lines to transport energy from their source to end users – often several states away. This particular pipeline stretches 10,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to New York, providing natural gas to thousands of customers in 12 East Coast states.
Pipeline accident–related fatalities have risen from nine in 2008, to 13 in 2009 to 22 in 2010. In February 2011, five more fatalities occurred following an explosion in Allentown, Pa. (See timeline of other recent incidents.)
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued a call to action after the Allentown incident. In it, LaHood asked U.S. pipeline owners and operators to conduct a comprehensive review of their oil and gas pipelines to identify areas of high risk and accelerate critical repair and replacement work. He also announced federal legislation aimed at strengthening the power of Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to oversee pipeline safety.
It’s All About Relationships
A major pipeline failure can set off a complex chain of events that often involve many separate, compounded hazards that can overwhelm first responders very quickly. To help minimize the impact of pipeline emergencies, first responders need to establish a relationship with pipeline operators in their jurisdictions.
“Early communication and emergency response planning absolutely must happen well before an incident occurs,” said Tim Butters, deputy administrator at PHMSA and former assistant chief of operations for the Fairfax (Va.) Fire Department. “Game day is not the time to be getting acquainted and trying to implement an unfamiliar response plan.”
PHMSA requires pipeline operators to provide emergency responders with detailed information about their pipelines, including locations of pipelines and shutoff valves, the company’s emergency response plan, who to contact in the event of an incident and how to safely respond to an emergency.
Preplanning helped keep the Appomattox incident from becoming a greater tragedy. Chief Timothy Garrett of the Appomattox Volunteer Fire Company led the unit that responded to the pipeline failure. Knowing personally who he needed to talk to well before the incident, made a world of difference in the way the company responded to the rupture, he said.
“Within 5 minutes of the incident, we had direct contact with the pipeline company,” Garrett said. “The preplanning was key. I can’t think of anything we could have done differently.”
After joining the department, Garrett toured the pipeline facility and reviewed their Material Safety Data Sheets. The fire company also conducts training each year that specifically prepares them for dealing with pipeline emergencies.
“A lot of areas just don’t have that relationship with the company, but that’s what really helped us,” Garrett said. “We knew what to do right off the bat once we knew what the cause of the incident was.”
The fire company had another key asset during the explosion response — volunteer firefighter Eddie Ragland, who has worked for the pipeline company, Williams, for 34 years.
Williams by default filled a critical role that every pipeline operator should designate and provide to emergency responder leadership – a knowledgeable, recognizable liaison that both groups can recognize and relay information through.
“It gives them a face to look for in a situation like that — someone they can relate to,” Ragland said.
When the incident occurred, Ragland and most of his fellow pipeline workers didn’t need to get a call informing them of the disaster — the deafening roar of the pipeline and ground erupting did the trick. The flames that poured out of the broken tube left no doubt.
“Nothing else could have been burning like that,” he said.
Ragland grabbed his fire company-issued radio and contacted Garrett, already who had been dispatched to the rupture site. “I hollered at the fire chief as we were heading to the valve setting to let him know we were on the way to shut the gas off,” he said.
Safety for Pipeline Emergencies
To begin to address a pipeline failure a fire chief needs several key pieces of information: the location of the pipeline, what it carries and its operator.
The National Pipeline Mapping System is an interactive, Web-based tool that displays maps of hazardous liquid and gas transmission pipelines, liquefied natural gas plants, and other facilities. While the NPMS is available for public view, emergency responders can access a more sophisticated and detailed version available only to government officials.
Also available to fire departments is the Emergency Response Guidebook, which contains well-organized information to help responders identify specific risks associated with hazardous materials involved in a transportation incident, measures to take to protect themselves and procedures for containing the incident as quickly and safely as possible. The guidebook includes a section on pipeline transportation and incident response.
PHMSA is distributing more than 2 million free copies of the latest version of the ERG. PHMSA also has partnered with the National Library of Medicine to provide a free smartphone version of the ERG in its Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders. The mobile version will be available this summer.
Speaking of mobile apps, on-the-go versions of the free, Pipeline Emergencies training manual currently are available for the iPhone and Android devices. Pipeline Emergencies is a comprehensive program produced by PHMSA and the National Association of State Fire Marshals that offers formal pipeline emergency response training to firefighters that may respond to a pipeline incident. More than 1,000 firefighters and certified fire trainers have completed the course since it was introduced in 2004.