Article Archive
Dave's Notes
A Painful Year Reviewed
Vol. 21 No. 1

As I am writing this column four days are still left in the horribly eventful year of 2005. Writing about the industrial emergencies that made this one of the worst years on record in our profession might be tempting fate. Four days is plenty of time for the unthinkable to graduate to the painfully unavoidable. As far as I'm concerned someone should shoot that old man with the scythe and the whiskers right now. Call it justifiable homicide.

In March, the same week as our IFW conference in Corpus Christi, a disastrous explosion rocked a BP refinery in Texas City, killing 15. It was almost a flashback to the 1990s in Baton Rouge and Pasadena. The headlines were ugly, but BP's emergency responders, supported by the Channel Industries Mutual Aid (CIMA), covered themselves in glory. No one can criticize the emergency response to that event.

Anyone along the Gulf Coast who gave a sigh of relief thinking that their plant had been spared the worst needs to find themselves a different lucky charm. The rest of the year offered an escalating scale of misery for industrial responders. In late August a vengeful turn in the weather known as Hurricane Katrina sank a major American city and many of the coastal refineries in the gulf states.

Surely, we thought, that has to be the worst the year has to offer. Four weeks later Hurricane Rita rolled ashore, again raising havoc with industrial facilities along the Gulf Coast still treading water from Katrina. God, we prayed, let that be the worst this blighted year has to offer.

Hurricanes don't leave many options. They take away the electrical power and the fire water. Among the people fleeing to safety were the industrial firefighters themselves. That was the right thing to do. The only choice for management was to shut down and ride it out.

Still, it could have been worse. Most Americans suffering sticker shock at the gas pumps screamed "Get those refineries back in gear." Yet, starting up a cold plant means an added risk of fire. Add to that the limited manpower in maintenance personnel and contract services. Crude oil and gasoline had been spilled in quantity. Thankfully, the Gulf Coast refineries came back to life with only one minor fire taking place.

It was a new experience for most of us, and not a pleasant one. None of our emergency pre-plans included relying on a government that might not be there when we needed them. We had Williams Fire & Hazard Control needing fuel for what industry responders would clearly consider emergency equipment, yet being refused access to gasoline in government fuel trucks. However, there were success stories. Some of the plants planned in advance to have food and housing for workers. I learned that the best prepared industrial organizations in America are railroads and power companies, able to mass thousands of workers to restore service to millions of customers. Power companies began shipping supplies and personnel to the affected areas as soon as the storms passed.

All of this was accomplished without help from FEMA. It might be beneficial for FEMA and the petrochemical industries to study the strategies used by the utility and transportation sectors to deal with major service losses.

Okay, we said to ourselves, that's the worst of it. Three Mile Island plus Bhopal couldn't be as bad as 2005. Then, on December 11, the skies above the U.K. filled with smoke. Flames raced across a massive oil storage depot north of London, catching everyone by surprise. This was not a production facility, but a simple storage facility. Worse, the fire took three days to extinguish, due mainly to environmental concerns hindering the fire fighting.

What have we learned from all this calamity? In March 2006, Industrial Fire World will dissect and analyze these events during its annual conference and exposition in Baton Rouge. Together, industrial responders can determine the most effective way to deal with similar circumstances at their plants. It doesn't take much imagination to adapt the procedures appropriate following a hurricane to those appropriate following a major terrorist incident. If the government is not going to pre-position supplies of foam, large diameter hose and pumping delivery devices, then industry needs to come together and plan how to do it. I've heard more than once from our friends at FEMA that they are not there to help for-profit industries. Okay, that's fine. We can handle it ourselves. But remember, when FEMA is overwhelmed again by events natural and otherwise, don't call us, we'll call you.

Industry has wonderful examples of what mutual aid organizations in Houston, Corpus Christi, Beaumont and along the Mississippi River have accomplished. However, I know that each of these organization would need outside help if multiple events of the caliber mentioned above happened simultaneously. Industry has a responsibility to be able to put our resources where they are most needed in a major disaster. We may have to learn to coordinate with the military to obtain critical resources and personnel. The U.K. fire shows us that we must take a broader view of what industrial facilities are at risk. We need to evaluate all the "what if" questions to understand what must be changed before the next big event. o


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