Article Archive
Dave's Notes
Critical resources for success
Vol. 27 Spring 2012

Every industrial facility, no matter how big or small, should have a standard operating procedure when re-sponding to emergencies. In other words, a pre-plan. As innovations go, this is hardly earth shattering. “Hope for the best, expect the worst” is a bit of sage wisdom every intelligent firefighter carries next to his heart.

For the most part, emergency pre-plans fall into two categories. The first category is the kind of pre-plan designed for compliance. When the OSHA inspector comes to visit, the plant manager can point to a dozen three-ring binders on the shelf and make everybody happy. Inside is a course of action covering every potential industrial mishap and misadventure. My personal favorite even detailed the proper procedure for extinguishing fires in porta-potties.

The second category is pre-plans that perform, not just comply. An adequate pre-plan does not have to dictate procedural minutiae such as how many sections of hose to hook up using what kind of coupling and adaptor. A good pre-plan should be objective about the best way to deal with the major events your company and emergency response group have determined are a risk.

If your facility is a refinery, that risk is fire in storage tanks or process units. If the facility is a chemical plant, the risk might be the nature of the chemicals being handled such as propane or chlorine.

A pre-plan must be built on realistic operations scenarios to determine what resources will be necessary. For example, an analysis may reveal that resolving a potential scenario will require 25,000 gallons of Class AR-AFFF foam and 15,000 pounds of dry chemical. The problem is the potential risk does not justify the cost of stockpiling that much fire fighting agent on site.

The alternative is developing mutual aid alliances. Put your 5,000 gallons of foam together with your neighbor’s 6,000 gallons and another 10,000 gallons available across town and suddenly you have the 30,000 gallons you need without buying an extra gallon, at least until you need to replace all that you use in an emergency response. It works the same way with personnel. As for equipment, neighbors or the local municipal fire department may have what you need.

All you have to do is ask. But some fire brigades find it hard to make a request for mutual aid part of their strategic thinking. Say the alarm goes off at your plant. The chief runs outside to discover flames shooting 200 feet into the air. If you know you can not handle a fire that big, it is time to call the cavalry.

Instead, the chief and his responders tackle the job single handed. Three hours later his crew are so exhausted they are tripping over their own tongues. Then, suddenly, somebody says, “We need mutual aid.” That mutual aid should have been on hand within 30 minutes of the alarm, not hours later when the first responders and other resources have been spent in futility.

Taking mutual aid into consideration, how can a fire chief determine if his pre-plan works? Conduct table top simulations. The best simulations come as a surprise. “This is a drill,” a voice on the radio announces. Instructions are given for the management response team to report to one room and the responders report to another.

All communications are by cell phone or radio. Table top exercises where everyone gathers around one table with the moderator giving signals to start and stop miss the point. The entire response is conducted as it would be in reality. Otherwise, the contribution to the pre-plan is invalid.

No matter what type of industrial facility is involved, plenty of experience exists on record about emergency responders coping with the inevitable fires and explosions.

For example, “Disasters Man-Made,” a book written by myself and IFW editor Anton Riecher, highlights a wide variety of these tragedies, noting the important lessons from each. It is a perfect example of sharing experience to improve on the final result. If a particular foam fails on a specific product the next firefighter facing the same challenge need not repeat the frustrating outcome.

First hand experience is an important teacher too. Unfortunately, in industrial fire response, it can also be an expensive and deadly means to acquire wisdom.


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