June 24, 2013

Knowledge, planning keys to emergency response

Charles Oliver

— Modern house fires burn hotter and the fire spreads faster than it did even as recently as the 1960s, says Dalton Fire Chief Bruce Satterfield.

“The temperatures in a house fire now are often three times what they were back in the 1960s, and it’s because back then most everything was made out of wood and cotton and other natural materials. Now, we have a lot more plastics and other synthetic materials in our homes. The carpet, our furniture, our appliances are often made out of these materials,” he said.

If synthetic materials have changed the way house fires are fought, the chemicals and processes used to create those synthetics present an even greater challenge for firefighters and other emergency responders. And in few places are those challenges greater than in the Dalton area, with its large concentration of manufacturing firms.

Local emergency officials say the key to dealing with those challenges is to be prepared and to know what chemicals and processes they might be dealing with when they have to respond to an emergency. That preparation starts with visits to commercial and industrial sites.

“We do visits to sites, survey them, make drawings and identify where any chemicals and other dangerous items are stored and plan for how we will respond if anything happens there. That’s not just chemical plants but home and garden stores, hardware stores, big box stores, gun stores and pawn shops,” Satterfield said. “Those stores might have fertilizers or pesticides or Coleman fuel. Gun stores will have ammunition and black powder, and we try to be aware of those things. That’s how we know what’s in a building. But nothing is foolproof. Stores can change their inventory overnight.”

Murray County Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Dewayne Bain says that sort of pre-planning is very detailed.

“We contact each business twice a year. We do an on-site visit once a year, and we call once a year. We look at what is being manufactured on the site, what’s being stored there and where on the property is it being stored, who services the electricity, who supplies the gas, anything that might be a hazard,” he said.

But Bain says firefighters can only visit the businesses they are aware of and know might present a challenge.

“We are at a disadvantage in Murray County in that the county doesn’t require a business license. Each fire station, each district tries to keep on top of what’s out there. But there may be things there we don’t know about.”

The federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act requires companies to report to federal and state governments and local emergency management agencies sites that contain certain amounts of a lengthy list of chemicals that are particularly toxic or volatile.

Previously, those reports were delivered in hard copy. But in 2007, the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provided funding for the University of Texas at Dallas to set up E-Plan, an electronic filing system. In 2008, DHS provided funding for that college to develop the Chemical and Hazmat Information Reference Portal, which allows states to voluntarily submit information about hazardous chemicals and risk management plans to DHS. Each state could grant permission for the university to share that data with E-Plan.

That system is currently used by 39 states including Georgia. It allows emergency responders to immediately call up those plans when responding to an emergency at one of those sites. Before E-Plan, someone would have to go to their files and manually pull out the report.

Federal funding for E-Plan, however, ended in fiscal 2012. A DHS official says the department determined that information was available elsewhere. The University of Texas at Dallas’s contract to maintain that program ends on Aug. 31.

“There are several plans being considered, tossed about both at the national level and the state level,” said Georgia Environmental Protection Division Emergency Response Manager J.R. Campbell. “Some states have already developed their own databases. Georgia’s current position is that we are going to continue to try to support E-Plan and hope for the reinstatement of the funding. If funding isn’t restored, the University of Texas is developing an alternative. If that doesn’t happen, we may have to revert back to paper files.”

In Whitfield County, planning to deal with all emergencies, including those involving hazardous chemicals, is done through the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), which meets every other month.

“We have about 50 people active in the LEPC and about 30 of them will be at any given meeting,” said Whitfield County Emergency Management Director Claude Craig. “Those people are first responders, government officials, members of the faith-based community and industry officials. We share information. At every meeting we have a lessons-learned session. People talk about what’s going on with their company or at their fire department.”

Murray County does not currently have a formal LEPC, but Bain said emergency officials do meet to discuss planning and he hopes to put together an LEPC.

“We don’t have any timetable for that,” he said.

At least 15 people, including 10 first responders, were killed when a fertilizer plant caught fire, then exploded, in West, Texas, in April. The accident is still under investigation, and it isn’t clear how much firefighters knew about the chemicals being used there.

According to press reports, McLennan County, where the West, Texas plant was located, had an LEPC but it isn’t clear how active it was.

While local emergency officials might have a good grasp of what materials are being used and stored at local industrial and commercial sites, they may not know what’s coming through the area on the railroads and highways until there’s an emergency.

“The railroads used to be able to tell you how many flammable chemicals go through Dalton, how many explosives, how many water-reactive chemicals. But after 9/11, they don’t want the information to get out, so they only give you a general idea. And nobody knows what’s going up and down I-75,” said Satterfield.

Railroad cars that carry chemicals have placards on them telling responders what is in them, and many trucks do as well.

“But there are so many chemicals that if you have 999 pounds on the truck you don’t need a placard. Only if you have 1,000 pounds or more do you need a placard,” Satterfield said.

Officials said that just as they try to prepare and plan ahead, residents need to do so as well.

“You can have all the policies in place, and we certainly try to. But accidents happen. It’s all around us. We might have to leave our homes. We might have to leave our workplaces. And you have to know where you are going and be prepared to move quickly,” Satterfield said.

In April 2004, a runaway chemical reaction at MFG Chemical in Dalton released allyl alcohol and allyl chloride, forcing more than 200 families from their homes, and 154 people, including police and ambulance personnel, required treatment for chemical exposure.

Whitfield County now uses a CodeRed system to issue telephone alerts to people about chemical spills or other emergencies. To sign up, go to the Whitfield County website (www.whitfieldcountyga.com) and click on the CodeRed logo.

Murray County does not currently have a CodeRed system, but Bain said putting CodeRed or a similar system into place is one of his top priorities. Murray County uses a system called Nixle, which allows county officials to send mass text messages and email. To sign up for Nixle, go to www.nixle.com.

To find out more about how to prepare for emergencies, go to www.ready.gov.

Whitfield County has a program to train and manage volunteers who wish to help out after a disaster. The Emergency Management Agency’s CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program is offered free to county residents.

For more information about CERT, call (706) 370-4911 or email cert@whitfieldcountyga.com. For more information about the national CERT program, visit www.citizencorps.gov/cert.