Article Archive
Focus on Hazmat
Different pews in the same church
Vol 26 Summer

Historically civil fire protection has been provided by volunteer organizations, the members of which band together and pool their resources to protect life and property in their communities. This is a uniquely American phenomenon dating back to colonial times.

These volunteer departments persist into the present day, and they continue to render yeoman service in many smaller communities and rural areas. As these early communities grew and prospered, many of their volunteer firefighting organizations evolved into full time professional municipal fire departments, but their primary focus was, and still is, the protection of life and property within their communal environments.

The industrial fire brigade developed and evolved along a parallel track. As manufacturing facilities grew in number, size and complexity, the need for fire protection by agencies equipped with specialized equipment and expertise to meet the unique needs of a particular industrial installation or product became apparent. To assuage these needs (and obtain lower insurance rates) plant owners established their own private fire brigades with membership recruited from their workforce, and therefore having specific knowledge of their particular facility and the products and raw materials contained therein.

These brigades had the same objectives as those of the municipal departments: the protection of life and property but within the bounds of their own industrial installation. This is not to say that the industrial folks did not recognize that they were citizens (both corporate and private) of their communities. Although a line of demarcation between the municipal and the industrial fire departments still exists, there is a plethora of incident accounts in which fire brigades from local industrial installations came to offer mutual aid to municipal fire departments in cases where the emergency reached overwhelming proportions. The reverse is also true in the case of major industrial incidents. As with the early village volunteer departments, many of the industrial brigades also evolved into full time career departments.

This system of friendly coexistence characterized by willingness to provide mutual aid and assistance along with the interchange of knowledge worked well so long as industry was composed of small installations serving a compact local clientele within an area limited by the capabilities and economics of animal transport. It continues to do so to the present time. However, as the country flourished and mechanized transportation in the form of railroads, motor trucks and airplanes became available, commerce and industry grew exponentially until today potentially hazardous products are transported to the furthermost corners of the continent. The same trains and trucks that run through Houston run through Lordsburg, NM. The products that they carry are just as hazardous in Antelope Wells as they are in Texas City, and, in the event of an incident within his jurisdiction, the fire chief at Antelope Wells will be “on the hook” until additional resources can be mobilized and transported to his location, whether he relishes that assignment or not. Given the location of Antelope Wells, and countless other isolated rural communities in America, this time lag could be anywhere from several hours to more than a day.

However, our mythical fire chief at Antelope Wells is not alone. He has numerous resources available to him such as ChemTrec, Transcaer, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and various product-specific response teams operated by trade associations such as The Chlorine Institute. Still the best assistance organization on the planet can rarely provide any meaningful physical help during the initial phases of an incident response. They can suggest to our fire chief a reasonable and rational course of action and advise him as to how to go about implementing it, but the actual “boots on the ground” will be those at the scene, i.e. the local responders. These are the ones who will have to carry out any possible rescues, contain and isolate the product, order necessary evacuations and protect adjacent exposures to whatever extent possible. Any assistance from outside agencies, while decidedly welcome, will usually be in the form of information, consultation or advice rather than additional manpower or dedicated response equipment, at least during the initial phase of the incident. Thus the municipal departments must be able to don the “hat” of their industrial brethren and deal with incidents entirely foreign to their usual frame of reference. And by the same token, the industrial organizations may be called upon to address structural incidents both inside the plant and out. In both instances, the motto of the Boy Scouts — “Be Prepared” — is appropriate.

Preparation is more than “cross training,” i.e. attending formal training sessions in disciplines and/or specialties other than one’s own. It involves mutual familiarity with and standardization of equipment and techniques along with respect for and appreciation of the problems faced on both sides of the aisle. There is no substitute for personal interaction when this is possible. It is much easier to respond to a request for assist-ance when it comes from an acquaintance or even better a friend than it is from a rank stranger whose abilities and capabilities are unknown and whom we have never met in person. The “line of demarcation” between industrial and civilian fire services must, because of differences in funding and governance, remain intact, but it should be an administrative boundary that is easily traversed in time of need, not a regulatory barrier that impedes efforts to mitigate the incident.

Obviously it is impossible for a response commander in Louisiana to be on first name basis with every fire chief in the country in whose jurisdiction his company’s products are used or through which they are transported, but there are ways to become acquainted at least to the extent that the parties on the telephone know to whom they are talking. Officers can attend training sessions and meetings on “the other side of the house.” When they do the interchange of ideas and inputs from different perspectives it can certainly be beneficial to all concerned. Regular reading of publications across the “line of demarcation” is obviously something that can help bridge the gaps, both geographical and philosophical, between industry and civil entities. In fact, it would not hurt for an industrial publication to print a worthwhile article from a municipal responder and vice-versa. Neither side has a corner on creativity or innovation. If a new idea works in a particular situation, what difference does it make if it comes from a plant or a precinct? If it works, use it.

The time has come when both industrial and municipal fire services must reach out and include each other to the mutual enhancement of both. Worthwhile publications should be read by both sides and judged by the quality and applicability of the material proposed by the author rather than the insignia on his shirt.

Technical advances in one area often find application in other arenas. Foam is, perhaps, the preeminent example. It was developed to extinguish fires involving petroleum products (usually fuels) but the innovators on the tail board have utilized foam for almost any task in the regimen of fire fighting. It fills void spaces such as stairwells in structure fires. It serves to remove flammable vapors from over turned tank trailers and it serves to lubricate and insulate runways in the event of a crash landing. Applications of foam blankets have insulated support columns and thus delayed or prevent their failure in a fire situation. Compressed Air Foam Systems have been used to expand water supplies in combating wildland fires, and coatings of this material have prevented more than one roof from igniting. The list is endless and is but a single example of an invention in one area adapted for use in another through the innovative genius of the American firefighter. It is a contribution to the public safety that should not go unnoticed.   

We, industrialists and civil servants alike, occupy different pews in the same church. We need to sing from the same hymnal.


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