Firefighters don't always need an alarm tone to know it's time for work. Suddenly, a terrible concussion echoes across the equipment bay. Every pane of glass in the station house rattles. The picture of the town's first fire chief is jarred off its place of honor on the wall and hits the floor with a crash.
No need to wait for the first of a flood of 911 calls. Something big has happened, and that fireball rising over the local industrial corridor tells you it needs immediate attention.
Your apparatus rolls and you pull up to the main gates of Filibuster Fabricating and Foundry, that big plant that feeds half the town. A couple of things are immediately apparent. First, there is a big fire. Bigger than last year's tire store fire. Bigger than last Christmas' apartment complex fire. Bigger than anything the department has ever simulated in training exercises.
Second, there are almost certainly injuries, maybe even fatalities. What to do? The preplan says report to the main gate and receive instructions, but the front gate hangs wide open and the guard shack is empty. What now?
Unfortunately, too many municipal or district fire chiefs have the reality of their responsibility for dealing with an industrial disaster slam them in the face on the day of an incident. They may have intellectually recognized their responsibilities the day they took their jobs, but they failed to take the next important steps. Real preparation requires inspections of the facilities in advance, with preplanning conducted as thoroughly as any other potential fire risk. Plants, refineries, factories and mills are an integral part of the community, and while the odds of a fire at a residential structure may be higher, industrial facilities are not untouchable fortresses.
Time after time, you read the same quote from the local fire chief after some industrial catastrophe: “We had no idea what was burning.” That fire chief needs to find another job. The chief has the right and responsibility under city, state and federal regulations to know what his department is expected to deal with. Even in facilities cloaked by national security, the local fire department has the authority to demand access.
What are the hazards? What is the worst conceivable thing that could happen? What is the worst inconceivable thing that could happen? How do you respond? Do you go on the offensive or the defensive? Is choosing not to intervene at all a reasonable alternative?
Every fire department has its limits. Most chiefs know a typical six-engine department doesn't have the resources to tackle a major fire on the top floor of a 10-story high rise. Similarly, an understanding of the resources needed to tackle an industrial fire can make the difference between half a plant or no plant. There's no shame in being defensive and letting the facility burn. It is an acceptable strategy when pitting limited resources against some of the worst disasters encountered by man.
Every industrial facility subject to federal regulations has an emergency plan. The problem too often is that these plans become focused on compliance rather than command. Instead of tailoring the plan to meet the individual facility, a third-party consultant may work from some one-size-fits-all matrix, simply switching out names, filling in blanks, and stapling some Material Safety Data Sheets at the end.
In my opinion, most of these plans are junk, pure and simple. I recently inspected the plan for a plant in Houston that contained an entire section on earthquakes. Texas has just about everything that can kill — tornados, floods, hurricanes, falling space debris — except earthquakes.
Industrial facilities require serious preplans. They should tell you what chemicals are to be found on site and whether those chemicals are reactive, explosive or toxic. They also should tell the local fire departments what resources they'll need to be able to handle emergencies involving those chemicals. If a company isn't willing to provide that information, the responsibility falls to the fire chief to find out.
The federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act requires facilities to submit Material Safety Data Sheets or chemical lists and emergency hazardous chemical inventory forms to the local emergency planning committee and the local fire department within five business days after the reportable hazardous chemical is received. Of course, there are exceptions. This past October, fire spread through a hazmat transfer facility in Apex, N.C. The categories of waste included oxidizers, bases, acids and flammables. Apex Fire Chief Mark Haraway had made it his business to identify the threat and plan for it in advance. The quantities of hazardous materials involved, however, fell below the thresholds defined by EPCRA for reporting. Because the site's inventory changed on a regular basis, all the facility was required to maintain was a daily manifest.
That manifest was unavailable to firefighters because it burned with the rest to the facility's contents. Haraway later said, “It [was] literally the worst-case hazmat scenario you [could] have.”
Knowing the materials present at an industrial site is just the beginning of preplanning. Is there an alternate water supply? The annals of industrial firefighting are rife with instances where an initial explosion took out fixed systems such as pumps and water towers. Can you pump into the facility's system using siamese connections or through fire hydrants?
Do firefighters need any specialized chemicals? Flammable metals require certain dry chemicals or powders to extinguish. The type of foam typically used to extinguish a crude oil storage tank fire is inadequate if a polar solvent is involved.
Plant management may contract with third-party fire protection specialists to put out fires occurring in certain circumstances. The local fire department needs to understand how to interface with these groups.
So how can a fire chief satisfy himself on all these issues? Try a tabletop exercise. Such exercises can be extremely elaborate with maps and models, or as simple as just gathering the key players around the same table with a sketchpad. Hiring a consultant who regularly conducts these exercises may be the most economical choice. Bear in mind that industrial facilities are required to have annual drills. Conducting joint tabletop exercises with the local fire department is one way to fulfill that requirement.
Sit down with the plant manager and determine the most significant risks, anything from an explosion in a reactor to a spill of molten metal. Then bring everybody together in a classroom and announce the scenario. For example, somebody calls the guard post and reports that smoke is escaping from Building 7, the reactor building. Of course, every step in the drill includes the following proviso: “This is a drill.”
The guard then calls the 911 center. Next you hear the fire department toning out. In the classroom, the first engine company officer meets with the guard or the operations person, whoever the preplan says is supposed to be on hand.
“What have you got?” asks the officer.
“I've got smoke coming out of the reactor building,” replies the operations manager. “We evacuated the south plant and all the people have been accounted for.”
Then you proceed to go through all the steps required by the emergency plan, making it as close to real time as possible. Consider calls from civilians outside the immediate area that may start coming in. “Hey, we're getting calls from the 1400 block of Main Street that people are starting to smell smoke. Should they shelter-in-place or evacuate?”
If you opt to evacuate, that becomes the responsibility of the local emergency management authority. “Say, we need to set up an evacuation center at the civic center,” the head of that entity chimes in.
Meanwhile the fire chief is setting up his command post using the front seat of his vehicle. There may be people down in Building 7. You send in responders wearing Level A suits. Maybe you have to shut in some block valves to cut off the fuel to the fire. By the way, are the fire pumps working? If not, does your department know how to supplement the fire water system at the plant?
If you decide to intervene, what are you going to intervene with? Are you going to put master streams in the building or use foam or dry chemicals? Are you going to protect exposures? What are you going to do about runoff? It may be necessary to get public works personnel to block the creek that happens to flow nearby to keep the runoff inside the facility's fence. If the site is situated on a major waterway, you may have to alert the Coast Guard to halt ship traffic because of hazardous fumes. Maybe you have to shut down the local interstate highway, but you can't leave folks sitting in their cars all day. Those cars have to be detoured across the city. What problems does that represent?
All of these challenges need to be dealt with, quickly and in the right order. Never make a tabletop exercise so difficult that no one can win; on the other hand, don't let it be too easy. Participants should be challenged to a degree that makes the exercise more than a cakewalk but something less than climbing Mount Everest.
One other important thing about tabletop exercises is that today there are a lot more players than just the fire chief and the plant manager. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, a host of federal and state officials participate. There is the guy with a badge that says Homeland Security, followed by the FBI, EPA and the state's own authorities. At a recent hazmat incident a total of 110 agencies responded in 40 different command vehicles. Every one of the agencies could document a legal responsibility for being there. The days of commandeering the local McDonald's as a command post are over. To accommodate all these officials, the fire chief may have to erect a circus tent.
Suddenly, the tabletop exercise coordinator announces, “That's it.” Everything stops. You bring everyone back together and proceed to review the exercise, step by step. The first time you hold an exercise the participants may seem like they have never been to an emergency before. People may be rusty and not know or remember all the steps they should take. They're apt to miss a lot of important things, but that's OK, because everything we miss or don't handle correctly in an exercise becomes a learning experience where nobody gets hurt.
I like to conduct two tabletop exercises the same day. It's amazing how much people improve after the first exercise, graduating from wannabes to professionals. It builds a lot of confidence that when that terrible morning comes where the sun rises in the west at 2 a.m. — only it isn't the sun — plant management and local responders can perform as a team. The first fire officer on the scene isn't just looking for the guy at the gate but for Bill, the guard who works the graveyard shift. He knows that the environmental manager is Sam. By the same token, the plant manager arrives on the scene knowing to look to Chief Smith for answers. That's the way it's supposed to work.
David White is president of Fire & Safety Specialists Inc., a College Station, Texas, consulting firm that conducts training and provides consulting services to both domestic and international clients. The firm specializes in industrial and major hazard work.