Texas boasts an impressive score card when it comes to industrial disasters -- Texas City (1947 and 2005), Sunray-Dumas, Pasadena and Channelview, just to mention the big ones. The death toll from those incidents alone is 655.
And now add West.
When a disaster on this scale occurs, the regulators always start lobbying for another magic bullet to load in their gun. In reality, the agent of change is already in place. It is called pre-planning.
Emergency action plans, or pre-plans, covering industrial facilities are essential. Being fatalistic about industrial emergencies as an inevitable part of modern life merely invites fatalities.Yet, developing these plans and making sure local responders have them in place has been an ongoing issue throughout my 50-year career in fire protection.
The first goal of the pre-plan is to prevent industrial disasters at all costs. Close behind, the second goal is to be prepared to respond to such disasters with all the resources necessary to bring them under control.
Pre-planning means asking tough questions. It involves evaluating the facility to determine what can be reasonably saved and what should be abandoned to the flames if the worst happens. Many industrial emergencies can be prevented or held to a minimum. However, as West shows, a tactical retreat with all possible speed may be the only safe answer possible.
Pre-planning is not just planning the response, but determining if the brigade is prepared to respond. Are the firefighters properly trained? That means a lot more than spending a weekend at a fire school having fun. It means training with solid objectives such as flowing 5,000 gpm on demand or advancing hose to the top of a reactor because the threat of a leak exists.
An industrial pre-plan must be realistic. Acceptable risk is one thing. But, short of war, human life is not an expendable resource. Do the firefighters have enough air cylinders to deal with an extended release of toxic product lasting hours? And when was the last time a tabletop exercise was conducted? I mean something specific to the plant in question, not some cookie cutter scenario that applies everywhere from Topeka to Disneyland. Did key personnel participate in a manner that reflects what would be expected in a real life situation?
Is the product involved explosive? Toxic? Automatic systems such as water spray should be in place to dilute the chemical without placing personnel in direct contact.
However, no pre-plan covers every contingency. In October 1989 I was next door when a chemical complex in Pasadena, TX, responsible for one-third of the world’s polyethylene production exploded. An almost instant release of 90,000 pounds of gaseous ethylene-isobutane ignited, killing 23 people and injuring more than 100 others.
Dealing with that emergency required 150 fire trucks and 60,000 feet of large diameter hose on short notice. No pre-plan existed for something on this scale. Organizing incident command for industrial emergencies was only recently adapted from wild land firefighting. Thankfully, the talent and depth of experience of the personnel on hand was enough to compensate for the shortcomings. The almost unimaginable event was brought under control within 10 hours.
Between downsizing and retirement, that depth of experience has slowly eroded. Today, an industrial firefighter may go their entire career without a Pasadena-scale operation on their resume. That is as much a liability as it is a triumph.
Training is one way to compensate for that actual hands-on experience that, thankfully, is not as readily available as it once was. The other way is to pre-plan, anticipating the variation of calamities that can befall our firefighters and rehearsing the correct response over and over.
More than ever, it is critical to have the right number of personnel with the right knowledge for the job or bring in consultants with that knowledge from outside.
Fire fighting should be like golf. The lowest score wins. When totaling fatalities, a score card with a goose egg is the only way to play.