Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Coordinate Public Warnings
There is a disturbing article over on WLKY.com about a chemical incident in the Rubbertown area in Louisville, Kentucky. An apparently minor railcar leak at the Dow facility there resulted in area chemical alerts to be sounded. While this sounds like the kind of response that could result in saved lives, local activists claim that local residents were never notified of what actions to take to protect themselves from potential exposure. Now this is one of those areas where there have been longstanding conflicts between a number of chemical facilities and local residents, so this could just be a continuation of the ongoing communication problems in the area. It does, however, highlight a key component of any emergency response plan for high-risk chemical facilities, notification of the local community. In this case the chemical cloud did not apparently make it to the facility perimeter, always a good thing for their neighbors. Local alarms were initiated upon detection of the leak; this would allow for the most response time, providing neighbors with hopefully adequate time to take protective actions. Of course, those neighbors would have to know what actions to take for these automated alarms to be truly effective. Just providing detection and alarms is not an adequate emergency response plan. To be effective, these measures have to be backed up by adequate training of those potentially affected by the detected leaks. Providing training to off-site personnel can be challenging, but it is typically much easier to accomplish than would be responding to law suits that would be inevitably be the result of an inadequately prepared emergency response plan. Having worked in chemical facilities, I clearly understand that the management focus in the event of any chemical release is to gain control of the release and return the facility to full functionality as quickly as possible. This is why the planning and practice of the communication response is a key part of the facility emergency response plan. These communications need to become such an automatic response that they do not consume management time and resources during actual events. Finally, after any incident or exercise, every facility should conduct an after action review of what happened. Problems need to be identified in these effective non-events so that they can be prevented from recurring in events that are actually life-threatening. In this case, plant management needs to sit down with the complaining activists and figure out what needs to be done to solve this communications problem. While these two sides are probably never going to see eye-to-eye, they do need to be able to talk to one another.