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Witch's Brew
N.C. Firefighters Battle Haz Mat Blaze

Emergency operations planning will never be an exact science. An infinite number of variables apply. For instance, in Apex, N.C., an initial report of a suspicious odor escalated within minutes into a massive fire in a warehouse housing a hazardous waste transfer facility.

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

Now rewritten as an all hazard plan, the emergency operations plan included an appendix on haz mat response.

"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 our entire continuity of government," said Apex Fire Chief Mark Haraway.

However, the hallmark of effective NIMS planning is that it provides a consistent yet flexible framework for cooperation. Adjustments were made to successfully accommodate the rapidly expanding circumstances. The result was effective management of what could have been an overwhelming and dangerous situation.

On Thursday, Oct. 5, 2006, fire swept through a 100 foot wide by 150 foot long warehouse where a witch's brew of hazardous waste was collected and packaged before ultimate disposal. Preceded by a chemical cloud rising from the facility's oxidizer storage area, the 54-hour emergency, which included a mass evacuation, tested NIMS compliance to the limit for this bedroom community of 32,000 adjoining Raleigh, N.C.

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

Decon facilities were established at all receiving hospitals. Fortunately, only 42 people reported being overcome by fumes from the fire. Of those people, none required overnight hospitalization.

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

REACHING THE APEX

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. Chemical Safety Board, a public meeting required before a state permit could be issued was attended by a small number of people.

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 to where it could be finally destroyed or dealt with in some manner."

That industrial corridor is not so sparse today. Neighboring the hazardous waste 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 a sports arena, a gymnastics studio and much residential growth.

In 2002, a new owner took charge of the hazardous waste handling facility. That same year the Apex Fire Department switched from a volunteer to a paid organization 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.

"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 ladders from three stations.

"We run fire, EMS, heavy rescue and haz mat to an ops plus level," 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.

The department has been very aware of the potential risk posed by the hazardous waste facility, 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 kept up with their quarterly inspections."

The transfer facility consisted mostly of a large warehouse open on two sides. Down the center of the building ran a four foot high, 20 foot wide loading dock. Four bays approximately 25 by 50 feet ran down one side of the dock and three on the other. These bays, separated only by six-inch curbs, were used to hold the various classifications of hazardous waste being collected.

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

The categories of hazardous waste included oxidizers, bases, acids and flammables. Unfortunately, a more exact list of the constantly revolving inventory at the facility was unavailable, since the quantities fell below the threshold of the Emergency Planning & Community Right-To-Know Act. EPCRA requires facilities to submit material safety data sheets (MSDSs), or chemical lists, and emergency hazardous chemical inventory forms to the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and the local fire department within 60 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."

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

FIRST ALARM

The incident started simply enough. At 9:38 p.m., a motorist reported the smell of chlorine near Investment Boulevard and Schieffelin Road, the main intersection of the industrial corridor.

"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 in this area are the bulk oil storage plant and the hazardous waste handler," Haraway said. "The waste handler was probably the predominate producer of this cloud."

At this point there was no indication of fire, Haraway said. He immediately upgraded the response to a second alarm, bringing in another full assignment. He also ordered 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," Haraway 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 aided in the evacuation by going door-to-door in areas ahead of the cloud without the benefit of protective clothing or breathing apparatus.

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

Meanwhile, Haraway assembled a reconnaissance team to identify what the cloud was and where it was coming from without entering it. 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 a visible fire in the facility." That fire was later determined to have been in the bay containing oxidizer.

Before Haraway could acknowledge that transmission a second report stated that the fire was already through the roof of the warehouse. Flames were now apparent from Haraway's vantage point despite the cloud. Before Haraway could finish briefing the arriving haz mat team from Raleigh, an explosion triggered the first flaming mushroom cloud that night. Traced to 55-gallon drums of flammable hazardous waste stored on site, 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 quick from the explosions that ensued that it still wasn't far enough. We relocated again, this time almost a quarter mile from the facility."

Haraway ordered a general alarm which recalled all off duty personnel. Making use of a mobile command unit, 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 at the scene 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."

COMMAND DECISION

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 they had 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 the runoff." Add to that a continuing barrage of explosions inside the facility.

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, cabinet manufacture and oil storage facility.

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 call from 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 and breathing apparatus just to move the equipment out of that house," Haraway said.

Next, Haraway told the police chief to prepare to close Apex's 911 center, located only three blocks away from the fire station. Apex FD's standing as a USAR team became an important advantage. The USAR 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 were moved to the elementary school and all communications transferred to the communications vehicle. Via cell phones and satellite phones dispatchers maintained 911 radio communications with on scene units until calls could be rerouted through the Raleigh 911 center by Bell South.

Access to the police station was also lost within the first two hours of the emergency. Within three hours, the evacuation zone expanded to include Fire Station No. 3 as expected. In the meantime, Wake County Public Health had opened two shelters and were preparing a third to handle the 17,000 evacuees involved.

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

The evacuation zone was now a one mile radius of the transfer facility and five miles of airspace above the city.

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. An empty shopping center two miles away from the fire was commandeered. This provided room for a rehab station 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 from neighboring counties for fire, police and EMS," Haraway said.

The decision was made to wait until daybreak Saturday, then send in another reconnaissance team equipped with Level A suits. Their objective would be to determine how substantial the remaining fire was and come up with a containment and extinguishment plan.

By 9 a.m. Saturday, 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, the neighboring industrial facilities and residential area having escaped unharmed.

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

Before attempting extinguishment, steps were taken to control runoff. Using front end loaders and dump trucks filled with dirt, responders wearing protective clothing and breathing apparatus built 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 reach the flames effectively.

Owners of the facility hired industrial firefighters with U.S. Environmental Services and environmental health consultants with the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health to respond. Arriving with a highway patrol escort from nearby Sour City, N.C., these experts worked with haz mat personnel to develop a coordinated 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 conducted air monitoring around the facility and the evacuation zone. Also on hand was the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), a group of toxicologists with the Center for Disease Control.

By 9 a.m. Saturday, a reentry 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.

CHEMICAL SAFETY BOARD

The Chemical Safety Board is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. Board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

Of 400 to 600 industrial emergencies a year, the CSB typically will investigate half a dozen, said Robert Hall.

"It's a rather small number but we look at things like injuries, fatalities, community impact and whether there is education benefit coming from the incident," Hall said.

The incident at Apex has been judged serious enough to merit a CSB investigation.

"This particular incident scored very high on community impact, in part because half the town of Apex had to be evacuated for two days while it unfolded," Hall said.

Hall is leading a team of five investigators assigned to the Apex investigation.

"Per our mandate we are trying to look into the root causes of the accident and what prevention value can be gained from a public understanding of those root causes," Hall said. "We can then make appropriate recommendations to industry, the public and first responders to try and prevent future events like this."

Although a final report is at least nine months away, Hall said he was satisfied with the emergency response by firefighters.

"It is our belief that the Apex Fire Department handled this in an appropriate manner," Hall said. "They did not rush in and did not put people in serious harm's way. Their evacuation orders were measured and appropriate."

CONCLUSIONS

In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security established NIMS planning as required by presidential directive. That same year Apex began NIMS compliance training for fire and police.

"We had done table top drills working hand in hand," Haraway said. "Unlike a lot of agencies, we worked together. That was one of the things that really helped us make this thing work."

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

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

NIMS compliance allowed Apex firefighters 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 is planning and training."

 
 

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