Thursday, October 9, 2008

USFA Reports on Well Executed Emergency Response

Earlier this week the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) issued their report on the emergency response to an October 2006 chemical fire in Apex, NC. The USFA, a unit of FEMA, reported on how the city’s advance planning and training combined to provide an effective response to a potentially deadly fire at a hazardous-waste storage and processing facility. A detailed review of that report points the way forward for dealing with potential terrorist attacks on chemical facilities.


According to the USFA press release announcing the release of the report:


  • “By the time the incident demobilized, approximately 17,000 people had been evacuated from their homes due to the threat posed by the chemical plume. There were no fatalities. Thirty civilians sought medical treatment for respiratory distress and skin irritation. Twelve police officers and one firefighter were treated for respiratory difficulties that were consistent with exposure to ‘tear gas.’”

Emergency Response


With the Chemical Safety Board reporting on the causes of the fire, the USFA report concentrated on the community’s emergency response. From the initial fire department response to a report of a ‘chlorine odor’ the incident quickly escalated to a multi-department, multi-jurisdiction response to a major chemical fire.


Unable to access the current list of chemicals on site due to the intensity of the fire, the fire fighting effort was limited to containment. That uncertainty also required wide spread evacuations to avoid potential exposures to the smoke plume of unknown toxicity. Changing weather conditions resulted in the need for multiple movements of the incident command center, the community emergency operations center, and some of the evacuation shelters.


Emergency Response Planning


The report credits the effective response to this incident to an aggressive emergency planning and training program. The town of Apex started this process because of their location near the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant. According to the report:


  • “It was due to the frequent and ongoing planning and exercise program for the nuclear power plant that a climate and culture of cooperation had been firmly established among the town and surrounding agencies. All of the key players knew each other and knew each others’ capabilities.”


The entire town is located within the Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) for the Harris facility. This means that the town must plan for total evacuation in the event of a serious incident at that facility. To communicate the evacuation plan to its citizens the town plans “are routinely sent to the public via mailings with water and tax bills” (page 9).


The town expanded their federally-mandated emergency plan to an all hazards plan after a 2002 ice storm. The expanded plan included in-town evacuations with schools being used as evacuation shelters manned by the American Red Cross. “By taking a hazard-specific plan and expanding it to an all-hazards plan, the base of cooperation and coordination was expanded”.


Emergency Response Training <PCLASS=MSONORMAL style="MARGIN:0in 0in 0pt"> 

An emergency response plan is worthless without adequate training to support the plan. Apex used FEMA independent study plans as a starting point for their training process. All fire, EMS, and police personnel to complete IS-100, Introduction to the Incident Command System, IS-200, ICS for Single Resources and Initial Action Incidents, IS-700, National Incident Management System, An Introduction and IS-800, The National Response Plan, An Introduction. Other government personnel in key positions were also required to complete the IS-700 and IS-800 courses.


The Apex Fire Department developed an innovative method of including parts of that training into the every day operation of their department. Each shift commander is required to start the emergency planning process at the start of every shift. They are required to initiate an I-204, an asset assignment form from the National Incident Management System (NIMS). This is an important part of an Incident Action Plan and this gives the shift commander a start on the preparation of that written document in the event of a major incident.


Lessons Learned


The response of the town of Apex to this incident was very effective. As with any human endeavor, it had its strong points and weak points. The report spends three pages looking at both the positive and negative aspects of that response. While the entire report should be required reading for any emergency planner, these three pages would form a must read executive summary.


Congress and DHS should both take a good hard look at this report. It shows how valuable a mandatory community emergency response plan and effective emergency training can be as a foundation for a response to actual incidents. The federal government has extensive rules and regulations for emergency planning around nuclear facilities. It is time that similar requirements are placed oncommunities with areas at risk around high-risk chemical facilities.


The DHS CFATS process has objectively identified 7,000 high-risk chemical facilities. The program has delineated the specific risk for each of those facilities and the danger area that would be affected by a successful terrorist attack. That information should form a basis for emergency planning in the nearby communities. Federal law should require that planning and DHS should be the lead agency aid and enforce those requirements.


There will be those that would argue that such requirements already exist under various EPA regulations. They would be correct in a limited way. The EPA regulations do include a variety of generic planning requirements for a limited number of chemicals. Those requirements are not risk-based and there are few enforcement provisions. Furthermore, the EPA has a poor history of working with local communities.


The one thing that we can take away from the USFA report is that comprehensive emergency planning and training provide the clearest path forward to an effective emergency response to a catastrophic chemical incident. CFATS provides a framework for identifying communities where such planning and training should be required.

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