Scott Kerwood, past chairman of the Sabine Neches Chiefs Association, gives one key reason for the ongoing success of the 50-year-old Southeast Texas mutual aid association - no lawyers allowed.
"Everything within our organization operates on a handshake," Kerwood said. "There are no written mutual aid contracts. There are no attorneys saying, 'Okay, XYZ refinery, you can't be part of this organization unless we can tell you what you can and can't do.'"
Since the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901, Southeast Texas has been one of the nation's major centers for petroleum and petrochemical production. The giants of these industries dominate the Beaumont/Port Arthur/Orange economy. In addition, pulp and paper companies chose the wooded areas on the northern perimeter of the region. Service and support companies that complement these industries are also well-established. World War II drew ship building and transportation of fuel, military and food supplies to the Port of Beaumont and along the Sabine and Neches rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.
SNCA, the nation's oldest mutual aid association, brings industrial emergency responders from a three county area together with municipal fire departments, law enforcement, EMS and health services, county governments, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations. Under the SNCA umbrella, these organizations act as one in an emergency.
"We provide the association and the equipment," Kerwood said. "We provide the manpower, expertise and communications."
Kerwood addressed attendees at the 2007 Industrial Fire World Emergency Responders Conference and Exposition about SNCA.
Most recently, the association proved its usefulness in April 2006 against one of the largest process unit fires on record. The fire, which began in the propylene refrigeration unit at a chemical plant in Port Arthur, tested SNCA's ability to deal with an extended emergency lasting six days.
"We're designed as a mutual aid association," Kerwood said. "We'll come to your fire for a few days and help you put it out. Then we load up and go home. But in this case the company involved was asking for six days of assistance. Nowhere in our book did we have a plan designed for this type of assistance program."
Fortunately, SNCA was able to tap into various resources, he said. Members agreed to work in shifts. All manners of equipment and apparatus were made available throughout the long-duration incident. All of this was achieved without formal, written contracts defining responsibility and liability.
Remarkably, the 2006 emergency was SNCA's first deployment of mutual aid resources in nearly 20 years, Kerwood said.
Reimbursing members for expendable resources consumed in the course of fire fighting is handled via the honor system.
"If one refinery responds to an emergency at another refinery and expends a thousand gallons of foam, the refinery with the emergency simply sends the visitor a thousand gallons of foam to return the favor," Kerwood said.
Amazingly, after half a century of successful operation based on this gentlemen's agreement, SNCA still periodically runs into hardheaded outsiders who insist that a mutual aid system based on trust cannot function, he said.
"We had one local refinery tell us that their corporate attorneys insisted they had to have written mutual aid agreements," Kerwood said. "We told them, 'That's not happening - it's not how we work.' Apparently their attorneys have never been to Southeast Texas."
SNCA is an organization of familiar faces. At least once a month the membership breaks bread together to foster a solid relationship between individuals as well as the groups they represent.
"That way, when it's 2:30 a.m. and you're dragging yourself to some facility in trouble, you don't have to introduce yourself to strangers," Kerwood said. "You can say, 'Oh yeah, I know you - we sat next to each other at the chiefs meeting.'"
Establishing relationships between more experienced and less experienced responders is also an important mission for SNCA. The 18-year break between SNCA's last two major responses is both good news and bad news, Kerwood said.
"What has happened is a whole generational change of people within plants and fire departments," he said. "We have lost knowledge through retirements and deaths and it has created unique challenges for us."
Keeping SNCA vital and current as an emergency response organization is also important, Kerwood said.
"Something that we never had before was a strategic plan," he said. "It was just a matter of 'Call us if you need us.' But because of the way things are changing in the post 9/11 world, we have put together a plan as to what needs to be done in the future."
In the past, the SNCA president kept a notebook listing all the available resources. Today, information about those resources is available to everyone in an emergency via a computer database.
"The problem during the 2006 fire was that the database was kept on one computer that was not readily available," Kerwood said. "The database is made available to SNCA leaders via the SNCA web site."
Interoperability has been another area of concern. SNCA recently purchased communications equipment capable of linking cell phones with different types of radio systems - 800 MHz trunked, 900 MHz trunked and VHS.
"We can talk from the government side over to the industrial side and vice versa," Kerwood said.
Since the late 1990's the SNCA has fielded an Incident Management Overhead Team. It is designed to assist its members with the responsibilities that go along with managing an emergency. As with requests for people, apparatus or equipment, SNCA members can request the assistance of the overhead team when they need help with any of the command staff or general staff functions in the incident command system.
While it has not been used locally for an emergency, a portion of the SNCA Overhead Team was deployed to New Orleans by the International Association of Fire Chiefs following Hurricane Katrina to assist the New Orleans Fire Department, Kerwood said.
Lessons learned from this incident allowed the responders to pass on their knowledge to help all of Southeast Texas survive Hurricane Rita. Now the SNCA Overhead Team is becoming part of the Texas Forest Service Type 3 Incident Management Teams being established throughout the State of Texas. While there are still various levels of training that some new team members have to complete, if requested the SNCA overhead team stands ready to help other emergency responders throughout the state if requested.
The bottom line is SNCA is an emergency response organization that works, Kerwood said.
"We've worked for 50 years," he said. "We're going to continue to work for another 50 years."