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Effort targets emergency response after Texas fertilizer plant disaster

Effort targets emergency response after Texas fertilizer plant disaster

A planned federal regulation for emergency responder preparedness should require emergency service organizations to actively engage with local communities about chemical and other hazards to assess their vulnerabilities to and determine if they can and will respond to incidents such as the West, Texas fertilizer explosion, according to subcommittee members charged with drafting the proposal.

The April 2013 blast at West Fertilizer Co. killed 15 people, including 12 emergency responders, injured dozens and leveled large portions of the town, resulting in losses of $230 million. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced last week that the fire that led to the explosion was intentionally set and constitutes a criminal act.

In response to the disaster, a National Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health subcommittee is drafting an emergency responder preparedness regulation for OSHA to consider. The current proposal would require emergency services organizations to conduct a community vulnerability and risk assessment, including a written assessment of the hazards in its service area and coordinated planning with the whole community to respond to large-scale incidents.

But the proposal should go farther by requiring emergency services organizations to engage with their communities about the existence of hazardous materials risks and decide if they will respond to incidents based on that knowledge, according to several subcommittee members.

If chemicals or flammable materials are stored in their communities at a large scale, emergency services organizations should have to take that into consideration in their vulnerabilities studies, but if those hazards do not exist or if the departments do not respond to such incidents, they would not be obligated to do anything, said Rick Ingram, health and safety adviser at BP P.L.C in Goliad, Texas and co-chair of the subcommittee.

“We all know that human nature takes the least resistant path, and if we don't make something mandatory here about this one issue, I think we have totally missed the mark,” he said.

Regardless of whether the emergency services organizations identify themselves as capable of handling such incidents, they are still bound to develop a pre-incident plan associated with these facilities, said Matthew Tobia, assistant chief, support services and volunteer administration, Loudoun County Combined Fire Rescue System in Leesburg, Virginia.

“In West, Texas, if the volunteer fire department had known that a large fire in that facility could not be controlled safely, they would have turned their attention to evacuating the facility, evacuating the immediate area and establishing a zone of exclusion,” he said. “But they would only know that if they did a pre-incident plan and the pre-incident plan defined what they were supposed to do.”

The fact that ATF determined the West explosion was the result of a criminal act has no bearing on planning for and reaction to such incidents, according to stakeholders.

“To the firefighter, it's a fire and explosion with people who need assistance,” said Kenneth Willette, division manager, public fire protection division, National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Massachusetts. “That's how they react. They did that in Oklahoma. They did that in the first World Trade center bombing. They did that in the blast of the towers. Even though they looked at the event and said this is not a normal event, it did not deter them from basic incident priorities, which is life, property, the environment and stabilize the event and minimize the damage, and those priorities don't change.”

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