Article Archive
Illinois explosion bears reexaming
1984 refinery blast cost the lives of 17 refinery personnel
Volume 23. No 4

Back in the1980s, I served as an expert witness for the defense when federal authorities prosecuted a major oil company for mismanagement related to an explosion and fire at a refinery near Chicago that killed 17. Eleven were plant brigade firefighters. A relatively new federal agency known as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was determined to put somebody in jail.

The refinery owners prevailed -- barely. Chief among the allegations was the charge that the refinery's fire department had not been properly trained. The fire chief lacked the authority to compel key brigade personnel to attend regular training. He repeatedly notified management of the attendance problems. Still, it was shown that at the time of the disaster the refinery brigade was comparable to or even excelled that found at most industrial facilities.

Some of OSHA's charges bordered on the ridiculous. There was an accusation that the fire brigade was not even wearing bunker gear at the time of the blast. That was easily disproved. With regard to training, the fire chief kept meticulous records of everything done. It was thoroughly documented that these firefighters were familiar with laying hose, advancing hose to upper structures, setting up foam delivery devices and other essentials for emergency response.

What happened at this refinery is as rare as to almost qualify as an act of God. A microscopic crack in a pressure vessel opened wide at the worst possible moment. The 34-ton vessel and surrounding tower were hurled 3,400 feet by the ensuing blast. The best training and equipment in the world would still have left the brigade defenseless against such a catastrophe.

If something like this happens to you, be prepared to have everything you've ever written and every document that exists with your name on it scrutinized to the nth degree. It's not a comfortable position for a chief to be dissected by his own people and the government. It takes a strong individual to stand up under that type of intense grilling.

This particular incident happened 24 years ago. Since then we've gone through the era of "rightsizing," i.e., personnel cutbacks. Fire brigades operating today are slimmer and trimmer. "Yeah, I used to have 100 people on a shift," the chief said. "Now I've got 12."

Maybe it comes from complacency. Compared to the 1980s that capped off with events such as the refinery disasters in Baton Rouge, LA, and Pasadena, TX, this new millennium has been relatively sedate. Industrial emergencies are infrequent enough that plant managers can fool themselves into thinking that fire brigade training is not as important as actual production.

Just making responders sit through a couple of training videos each month is simply not enough. Training has to be objective and documentable. There has to be something achieved that can be demonstrated as proficiency. Otherwise management leaves itself open to the charges that followed the Illinois refinery blast in 1984. Since then OSHA has sharpened its skills quite a bit. There are people in government who salivate at the chance to expand their resume by putting a big corporation under the microscope. Jail time for someone is just icing on the cake.

Still, a fire chief's job means more than just tending the paperwork. Certification is great, but it shouldn't get in the way of actually teaching responders how to think and react to a rapidly changing emergency. Training firefighters keeps them alive. Walking them through some sham where they train using 1?-inch hose line when reality calls for a six-inch hose feeding a 6,000 gpm monitor may keep the lawyers happy, but it risks ineptitude if an event the caliber of what happened in Illinois ever befalls your facility.

Do what you have to do to protect yourself and equip your brigade to be ready. But remember that the real threat is not a lawyer with a briefcase but a smug attitude about the chance of disaster visiting you.



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