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Dave's Notes
That's how the cookie crumbles
Volume 25 Summer

As if celebrating the 25th anniversary of Industrial Fire World did not make me feel old enough, the industrial emergency dominating the news this summer painfully illustrates an issue that IFW has railed against during its entire quarter century of existence – cookie cutter emergency response plans.

When I started doing response planing years ago, it amazed me that companies hired me to tell them what they needed, then rejected my suggestions as impractical. I began to include training as a way to make them realize the potential consequences.

For those readers adverse to all media save IFW, let us bring you up to date. On April 20, an offshore drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon suffered a catastrophic blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting explosion and fire killed 11 workers. The next day the burning rig sank, severing the well at the ocean floor.

Two months later it continues to hemorrhage oil into the Gulf. Another two people have died in the course of clean up operations. Needless to say, the companies involved are taking a beating. Part of that beating is the closer examination of the response plans for catastrophes like this.

As a congressional investigation discovered, the five major oil companies involved in Gulf deep water oil drilling have plans that cite identical response capabilities, often using the same wording. Four companies reference protecting walruses, a scarce species in the Gulf.

Three of the five response plans list an emergency telephone number for an oceanographic expert who died in 2005.

I wish I could say I was surprised. Many years ago I was at a fire station central to the big refineries in the Los Angeles harbor area when a mutual aid request for foam arrived. The fire chief  said, “I’m not exactly sure how to get it.” That was scary. I picked up the response plan and started making calls. Of the five companies in the area listed to have foam, the telephone numbers for four were wrong. The fifth number was an answering machine – “Hey, this is Joe So-and-so, emergency response manager at Blanky-blank refinery. If you need me, leave a message and I’ll call back tomorrow — beeeep.”

There are two reasons we have emergency response plans. The first reason is that the government says we have to have them. The second reason is to compile information that the emergency response manager needs available immediately. Think of a response plan as an octopus with many tentacles. Each tentacle represents an area of responsibility, such as communications, planning, fiscal, legal and so on. An effective plan gives everybody a role and a responsibility. It also gives them somebody to whom they report.

Final decisions on some things are handled by the head of the sector or division. Other decisions go all the way to the top – the incident commander. But none of it works if the information is not valid. It is unimportant to me if the response plan refers to protecting species foreign to the hemisphere as long as it includes the ones being threatened.

For me, the problem with telephone numbers is the deal breaker. I bet if you picked 100 emergency response plans in use today in industry, 95 of them would have the same drawback. People die, retire, change offices and change jobs. An emergency response plan is not real unless someone checks every telephone number in it at least once a year to determine that there is a warm body on the other end. Every six months would be better.

Even an accurate response plan can be as faulty as these cookie cutter jobs. The best response plan is useless unless it is repeatedly rehearsed. But how effective are most drills? Somebody announces, “Okay, at 9 a.m. Thursday we’re going to have a drill – everybody meet at the emergency response center and bring your plans.” At one plant I arrived at the center to find 10 people waiting outside. No one could find a key to the door.

I am not against giving people a heads-up that a drill is coming. Just do not pencil it into the calendar like a dentist appointment. A drill is when the bells ring, the pagers beep and everyone must drop what they are doing – just like in a real emergency. This is serious business and it has to be done realistically.


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