Debris left after flames swept through a warehouse filled with hazardous waste in North Carolina - Photo by Thomas Babb.

Debris left after flames swept through a warehouse filled with hazardous waste in North Carolina

Photo by Thomas Babb.

Emergency operations planning is never an exact science. An infinite number of variables apply. In October 2006, 911 dispatchers in Apex, North Carolina, received an initial report of a suspicious odor in an industrial part of town. Within minutes, the situation escalated into a massive fire accompanied by continuous explosions sweeping through a hazardous-waste transfer facility.

Five months earlier, the city had rewritten its entire emergency operations plan to comply with the National Incident Management System. NIMS enables responders at all levels to work together to manage domestic incidents no matter what the cause, size or complexity.

Thanks to NIMS, the emergency operations plan now included an appendage on hazmat response. However, events soon outstripped anything imagined whenthat appendage was drafted.

"We had not taken into consideration that within two hours of such an event we would lose our 911 center, two of our three working fire stations, town hall, and ourentire continuity of government," said Apex Fire Chief Mark Haraway.

Fire swept through a 100-foot-wide, 150-foot-long warehouse that served as acollection and packaging location for a witches's brew of hazardous waste enroute to ultimate disposal. Preceded by a spreading chemical cloud originatingfrom the facility's oxidizer storage area, the 54-hour emergency would include amajor evacuation. All of this tested NIMS compliance to the limit for this bedroom community of 32,000 people adjoining Raleigh, North Carolina.

 "We identified the threat, planned for it and operated from that plan," Harawaysaid. "We moved 17,000 people in three hours. At its largest point, our perimeterextended across three major highways. Those people we didn't immediatelyevacuate we ordered to shelter-in-place, then maintained telephone contact withthem on a regular basis to make sure they were okay."

Responders established decontamination facilities at all receiving hospitals. Ofthe 42 people seeking treatment after exposure to the fumes, none required overnighthospitalization.

"With proper planning and proper implementation," Haraway said, "you canmake one of these events have a good outcome."

In 1988, Apex's then-sparse industrial corridor gained a new business. Initially,that business did not stir much local attention. According to the U.S. ChemicalSafety Board, the public meeting required before a state permit could be issued was attended by one person — an employee of the company seeking the permit.

The new business was not a manufacturing concern as much as a way station, said CSB investigator Robert Hall.

"They would typically take hazardous wastes from a number of different producers, consolidate it, separate it, repackage it, then ship it out of the facility towhere it could be finally destroyed or dealt with in some manner."

That industrial corridor is not so sparse today. Neighboring the hazardouswaste transfer and processing facility is a large manufacturer of cabinets and a bulk oil storage concern. And, outside a 1,000-foot exclusion zone, a different kind of growth has been apparent in the last five years. That corridor is now home to asports arena, a gymnastics studio and much residential development.

In 2002, a new owner took charge of the hazardous waste handling facility. Thatsame year the Apex Fire Department switched from a volunteer to a paidorganization, with Chief Haraway taking charge. Although Haraway describes Apex as a "bed and breakfast" community, the job was not without special challenges.

Within a 70.6-square-mile fire district, Apex F.D.'s first-tier response area includes the Harris Nuclear Facility, a major CSX switching yard and three major pipelines running from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast — Plantation, Colonial, and Dixie. The district also covers two bulk storage facilities — Motiva and Dixie — one of them being the largest storage of propane on the East Coast.

A fireball rises above the nearby trees. - Photo by Lee Wilson.

A fireball rises above the nearby trees.

Photo by Lee Wilson.

"As a municipal department, we are fully funded under the town budget," Haraway said. "I have a very good board that realized they gave me a job to do and let me do it. We've been very fortunate to receive about 10 state and federal grants we used to purchase the equipment needed to respond the way our plan is written." Apex F.D.'s muster includes 27 career personnel, nine per shift, plus 12 part-time personnel and 10 volunteers. The department operates four engines and two ladder trucks from three stations.

The department is certified to conduct fire, emergency medical services andheavy rescue operations. It is also holds an OPS (operations) plus level in hazardous materials training, Haraway said. And, unusual for a small town department, Apex F.D. is one of North Carolina's Type One Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams, specialists in extricating of victims trapped by structural collapse.

The potential risk posed by the hazardous waste facility had not escaped local firefighters, he said.

"We did pre-plans when they first opened and annually thereafter," Haraway said. "We also worked very closely with the North Carolina Department of Environmental & Natural Resources. They were the permitting agency, so we keptup with their quarterly inspections."

The transfer facility consisted mostly of a large warehouse open on two sides.The glow from the burning hazardous waste facility illuminates the night sky.

Down the center of the building ran a four-foot-high, 20-foot wide-loading dock. Seven bays approximately 25 by 50 feet sat beside the dock, four on one side and three on the other. These bays, separated only by six-inch curbs, held the various classifications of hazardous waste collected.

No fire walls or fire suppression systems were in place. Other than the lowcurbs, there was nothing to keep flames from spreading from one bay to the next.

The categories of hazardous waste on hand included oxidizers, bases, acids andflammables. Unfortunately, a more exact list of the constantly revolving inventorywas not available, since the quantities fell below the threshold of the Environmental Cleanup and Responsibility Act. ECRA requires facilities to submit material safetydata sheets (MSDSs), or chemical lists, and emergency hazardous chemical inventory forms to the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and the local fire department within five business days after the reportable hazardous material is present.

"Their inventory changes on a regular basis," Haraway said. "All they are required to maintain is a daily manifest, which they had."

However, that manifest was not readily available the night of the fire. It burned with the rest of the warehouse's contents.

The first report of trouble was simple enough. At 9:38 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5, a motorist reported a suspicious odor near Investment Boulevard and Schieffelin Road, the main intersection of the industrial corridor. Soon a second report mentioned the distinct odor of chlorine.

"We sent two engines, our normal response to any kind of gas or odor investigation," Haraway said. "We're a small combination department with some full-time staffing but heavily dependent on volunteers. Each engine had two people on board. Usually the battalion chief would have responded there, but he was off that night. So, I responded in his absence."

Firefighters stopped three blocks short of the intersection. It was hidden inside a 30-foot tall white cloud that resembled heavy fog. An eight-mile per hour wind was pushing the cloud into a heavily populated residential area and the downtown business district.

"In the back of my mind I'm thinking that the only things I've got in this area arethe bulk oil storage plant and the hazardous waste handler," Haraway said. "The waste handler was probably the predominate producer of this cloud."

The glow from the burning hazardous waste facility illuminates the night sky. - Photo by Lee Wilson.

The glow from the burning hazardous waste facility illuminates the night sky.

Photo by Lee Wilson.

At this point, no fire was indicated, Haraway said. Still, he immediately upgraded the response to a second alarm, bringing in another full assignment. Haraway alsoordered dispatch to contact the Raleigh Fire Department's hazardous materials unit and three neighboring mutual aid responders.

"I notified our county emergency management to activate our reverse 911 communicator system with two messages," he said. "We asked people already in the cloud to shelter-in-place. Others who were ahead of the cloud were told to start evacuating."

Haraway also contacted the town manager, police chief and other appropriate municipal department heads. Police, without the benefit of protective clothing orbreathing apparatus, aided in the evacuation by going door-to-door ahead of the cloud.

"They were directed initially not to get in the cloud at all," Haraway said. "Of course, that didn't work."

As the evacuation continued, Haraway assembled a reconnaissance team to identify what the cloud was and where it was coming from. The first team could not get close enough without risking exposure. The chief ordered a second team to approach the cloud from behind.

"At about 9:52 p.m., the team notified me that the hazardous waste handler was the source of the cloud," Haraway said. "They also notified me that there was avisible fire in the facility." That fire was later determined to have been in the bay containing oxidizer.

Before Haraway could acknowledge the transmission, a second report notified him that the fire was already through the roof of the warehouse. Despite the intervening cloud, flames were now apparent from Haraway's vantage point aswell. Before he could finish briefing the arriving hazmat team from Raleigh, an explosion triggered the first flaming mushroom cloud that night. It was later tracedto 55-gallon drums of flammable hazardous waste stored on site. Before the night was over, another 38 such explosions would be counted.

"We immediately ordered all our personnel to move back," Haraway said. "We moved our command post probably another five blocks back, then realized real quickly from the explosions that ensued that it still wasn't far enough. We relocated again, this time almost a quarter mile from the facility."

Apex firefighters maintain the command and staging area during the fire. - Photo by Lee Wilson.

Apex firefighters maintain the command and staging area during the fire.

Photo by Lee Wilson.

He ordered a general alarm, which recalled all off-duty personnel. Making use of a mobile command unit as headquarters, officials established a unified command structure that included EMS, law enforcement and firefighters. Ten engines and three ladders were waiting in staging for what was expected to be a long-term, large-scale fire event.

"We proved that NIMS works as a management tool for bringing large groups together," Haraway said. "We had 300 firefighters on scene, law enforcement from six neighboring counties, 16 EMS units operating along with state and federal resources. Everybody was kept in the loop."

New personnel arriving could be immediately updated and assigned, he said. "If a new person showed up, it didn't matter what their ID tag said. We told them where they fit in the scheme of the organizational chart, gave them a copy of the working Incident Action Plan (IAP) for that 12-hour work period, and they knew what was going on."

With the evacuation continuing, a media area was set up and operated by the town's public information officer.

"Keeping the media informed was important because the evacuation area was growing exponentially," Haraway said. "We briefed them once an hour for the entire 54 hours of the event. They played a major role in keeping the public informed."

Some fires need to be left alone. Haraway decided this was one of them.

"We opted to do that based on our pre-plan of the facility, knowing that theyhad a large amount of everything bad under the sun," he said. "Miller Creek runs adjacent to the facility on the downhill side. That is a tributary that leads to the drinking water supply for a neighboring city. We were not able to contain th erunoff."

At 11:30 p.m., Haraway notified the mayor that based on the magnitude of the continuing explosions he expected to lose as much as a city block including the transfer facility, a cabinet manufacturer and the oil storage facility.

Meanwhile, the chemical cloud continued to spread, causing more unexpected problems for the emergency responders. Initially, communications was not an issue. Wake County employs a countywide 800 trunking system that ties all emergency agencies together. That changed very quickly. Haraway received a callfrom the off-duty battalion chief reporting that the cloud had reached Apex's Fire Station No. 1, almost a quarter mile away from the fire.

"We had to put personnel in full PPE (personal protective equipment) and breathing apparatus just to move the equipment out of that house," Haraway said.

Next, he told the police chief to prepare to close Apex's 911 center, located only three blocks from the fire station. Apex F.D.'s standing as a USAR team became an important advantage. The team's equipment included a mobile, communications vehicle.

"We activated that and took it to an alternative emergency operations center location, a local elementary school," Haraway said. "Fire Station Three had always been our first alternative for an EOC, but we anticipated losing that station as well. The elementary school was well outside the projected perimeter."

Dispatchers moved to the elementary school, and all communications transferred to the USAR vehicle. Via cell phones and satellite phones dispatchers maintained 911 radio communications with the on scene units until calls could be rerouted through the Raleigh 911 center by Bell South.

Emergency personnel also lost access to the police station within the first two hours of the emergency. Within three hours, the evacuation zone expanded to include Fire Station No. 3 as expected. The evacuation zone now included a one mile radius of the transfer facility and five miles of airspace above the city.

To handle the 17,000 evacuees involved, Wake County Public Health opened two shelters and began preparing a third.

"One hundred of those were bedridden patients at an elder care facility," Harawaysaid. "We used 16 county ambulances and two buses to move them to three neighboring hospitals in the area."

At about 5:30 p.m. Friday, a low pressure system developed west of Apex. The wind made a 180-degree turn, forcing responders to again move the command post. Responders used an empty shopping center two miles away from the fire. This provided room for a rest or "rehab" station for firefighters, complete with cots and restrooms.

For food, Haraway activated the Red Cross and a local organization of restaurant owners called Feed the Firefighters. Both organizations brought canteen vehicles to the site.

"We were rotating crews every 12 hours using mutual aid resources fromneighboring counties for fire, police and EMS," Haraway said.

At daybreak Saturday, another reconnaissance team equipped with Level A hazmat suits entered the waste disposal facility to determine the extent of the remaining fire and come up with a containment and extinguishment plan. Three large fires continued to burn in the facility. On the positive side, the recon team reported that damage had been entirely confined to the transfer facility. Nearby industrial facilities and residential neighborhoods escaped unharmed.

"When the exploding drums and other material went into the air, they either landed in the street or the neighboring parking lot," Haraway said. "None of them hit the adjacent properties."

Before attempting extinguishment, responders took steps to control runoff. Wearing protective clothing and breathing apparatus, they used heavy equipment to build a four-foot-tall earthen containment around the facility. Next, firefighters attempted to use dry chemical on the fires, but wreckage and debris from the destroyed warehouse made it difficult to effectively reach the flames.

The owners of the waste facility hired contract industrial firefighters with U.S. Environmental Services and environmental health consultants with the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health. Arriving with a highway patrol escort from nearby Sour City, these experts worked with hazmat personnel to coordinate the response to the continuing fire.

"The fire fight ended up being all Class B foam," Haraway said. "We would remove a section of the building, then put the fire out. With the earthen dike all the way around the facility, we didn't have any runoff issues."

Final extinguishment was achieved at 12:23 a.m. Saturday. Working with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency, responders monitored the air around the facility and in the evacuation zone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a group of toxicologists with the Center for Disease Control, were also on hand.

By 9 a.m. Saturday, a plan to allow people back into the evacuation zone was approved by all participating agencies.

"From that point on it became more of a law enforcement event," Haraway said. "We continued to monitor the scene to make sure we didn't have any runoff or contamination issues."

The phased reentry plan to put people back in their homes was completed by 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Effective NIMS planning provides a consistent yet flexible framework for cooperation. Adjustments were made to successfully accommodate the rapidly expanding circumstances. The result was capable management of what could have been an overwhelming and dangerous situation.

NIMS had emergency responders to the Apex event "singing off the same sheet of music," Haraway said.

"If we wanted something from the police, all I had to do is turn to the police chief and ask," he said. "Likewise, if the police chief needed something from us, all he had to do was ask."

That allowed emergency responders to do the best job possible under difficult and ever-changing conditions.

"It all came together," Haraway said. "The only thing I can attribute that to isplanning and training.

Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.