Saturday, April 19, 2008

CSB Report on Hazardous Waste Site Fire and Explosions

Earlier this week the Chemical Safety Board issued their final report on the fire and explosions at a chemical waste treatment plant in Apex, NC in October, 2006. The description of the facility provided in the case study issued by the CSB does not indicate that there were any Chemicals of Interest on site at anywhere near an STQ amount. Thus the facility would probably not qualify as a high-risk chemical facility under CFATS regulations if it were operating today.

None the less, the fire and explosions at the facility resulted in the evacuation of "3,300 residences, the town hall, a fire station, and the town 911 center" (Case Study, page 2). Thirty people, including one firefighter and 12 police officers, were treated at local hospitals for respiratory issues according to the CSB web page. While the cause of the initial fire was not determined, there are no reports that it was terrorist related.

Again, lessons learned from a chemical accident can help us prepare for potential terrorist attacks at other facilities. Anyone that is responsible for emergency response planning for a high-risk chemical facility should read this CSB case study to learn what should not be done in preparing for a possible terrorist attack.

Fire Detection and Suppression

The fire was detected by a passerby after normal working hours. There were no company personnel at the site and there was no fire detection equipment on site. When the first fire fighters arrived on scene to investigate the reported fire they found a small ‘sofa-sized’ blaze. The only fire fighting equipment on site was some hand-held fire extinguishers. Before fire fighting equipment arrived on scene the fire spread rapidly, probably due to the presence of oxygen generators in the vicinity of the small fire.

Pre-Incident Familiarization of First Responders

When the fire spread to nearby drums of flammable and combustible liquids drums started to explode. The incident commander (the local fire chief) made the decision to pull the fire fighters back and allow the fire to burn-out. This was done because the fire department did not know what kinds and amounts of chemical waste were stored on site.

The high percentage of police officers in those seeking medical treatment is not unusual in this type of incident. Fire personnel are trained and equipped to deal with noxious gasses and smoke in the event of any kind of fire; they are normally equipped with self-contained breathing equipment. Police, on the other hand, are not usually trained to deal with hazardous gasses. Their protective equipment, if used, is better suited to dealing with riot control agents rather than industrial chemicals and toxic gasses.

Proper Prior Planning

With a little better advanced planning, this incident may never have resulted in a CSB investigation, much less such a scathing report. If there had been fire detection equipment on site the fire department would have arrived earlier and could have dealt with a much smaller fire. If there had been automated fire suppression equipment on hand, the fire department may never have had to deal with the fire at all.

If the fire department had known what was on site, where it was, and in what quantity, they would have arrived on site better prepared to deal with the situation. They would have had the appropriate fire fighting foam and would have been more comfortable in attacking the fire. If the fire had still gotten out of hand, the evacuated area would probably have been smaller and for a shorter period of time.

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