Residents of Crosby, Texas, located 30 miles northeast of Houston, were evacuated last month in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. The imminent threat to human life? Not flooding, but noxious explosions at the nearby Arkema chemical plant, which had lost power during the storm and was unable to maintain safe temperatures at its cold storage warehouses.
Wondering whether your community is in danger of a similar incident involving hazardous materials, aka “hazmats,” and what steps you can take to safeguard public health and safety? Here’s a closer look.
The 411 on Hazmats
According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), “Hazardous materials come in the form of explosives, flammable and combustible substances, poisons and radioactive materials. Hazards can occur during production, storage, transportation, use or disposal. You and your community are at risk if a chemical is used unsafely or released in harmful amounts into the environment where you live, work or play.”
The reality is that the threat may be closer than you think. Arkema is just one of thousands of chemical facilities and Tier II facilities around the U.S., in close proximity to millions of people, where toxic materials are stored. Even more alarming? One Congressional Research Service report determined that a single, worst-case scenario at one of more than 2,500 of these sites could impact somewhere between 10,000 and a million people.
Best Practices for Hazmat Response
The key takeaway for people tasked with keeping their communities safe boils down to understanding the threat, raising awareness and having an emergency response plan in place can save lives. To that end, DHS website Ready.gov sets forth a list of best practices for before, during and after a hazardous materials incident.
These start with emergency officials taking advance precautions and communicating safety precautions to residents at risk. Sending notifications with tips such as building an emergency supply kit, making a family emergency plan, knowing how to operate your home’s ventilation system, and understanding shelter-in-place policies can be critical to saving lives.
Meanwhile, best practices to use during a hazardous materials incident depend on the specifics of the situation. For example, there will be a different protocol if you are asked to evacuate than if you are requested to shelter in place. Unfortunately, remembering pertinent details can be challenging, particularly during a stressful emergency situation. Because of this, it’s critical to make sure that relevant information is available and accessible to all. Sending updates and instructions to residents directly in an area of impact should be a key component of an emergency response plan.
Even after the immediate threat of a hazmat incident has passed, guidelines pertaining to everything from what to do if you’ve been exposed to hazardous materials to when you can return to your home can help ensure optimal outcomes.
Getting the Word Out
If your organization doesn’t yet have a disaster response plan and/or if it doesn’t include a hazmat scenario as well as a comprehensive communication component, what are you waiting for? While preparing and sharing this information may not seem like a vital enterprise right now, it will become exactly that when an unforeseeable emergency arises.
Even if your community members could recall all possible scenarios, many response details are inherently situational and/or susceptible to change. Enter CodeRED from OnSolve. Designed to deliver emergency notifications with the highest levels of reliability and speed, this leading mass messaging system delivers geo-targeted, time-sensitive information in mere seconds. Integrating multiple modes of delivery, contact management and a recipient response feature facilitating two-way dialogue, CodeRED is a smart communication strategy for any group looking to support the safety of its community members as well as organizational continuity.
Ultimately, while Arkema company officials may not have been able to anticipate the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey, planning for the worst could have helped them avoid the ensuing issues. As M. Sam Mannan, a professor of chemical engineering and author of a study on Texas chemical plants, told The New York Times, “They knew they were dealing with an unstable chemical that they need[ed] to keep refrigerated. So the question becomes, could they have done something else?”
Which begs another question: If a hazmat incident occurs in your vicinity, will you be asking yourself the same thing, or will you have the peace of mind that comes with knowing you took every step to protect your community?