Hazmat emergencies are low-frequency, high consequence events. The West Fertilizer plant explosion in April 2013 shows the deadly consequences of being unprepared for a large-scale hazmat emergency. On that day, an ammonium nitrate explosion killed 15 and injured hundreds more. Nearby homes and businesses were severely damaged, many beyond repair. One of the several lessons learned from this experience was the need for improved processes for delivering timely alerts to the public throughout a hazmat emergency, as communications can substantially reduce injuries and in fact, save lives.
To further validate the need for emergency communication plans, a recent research study published by the University of Utah titled “Warning Triggers in Environmental Hazards: who should be warned to do what and when?” provides a framework to improve public alerting during environmental crises such as a hazmat emergency. The study lays out three key questions for consideration regarding proper alerting: (1) What target groups should take protective action? (2) What is the most appropriate Protective Action Response (PAR) for each target group? And, (3) When should these PARs be initiated? These framework questions can be summed up as the “who, what and when” of alerting.
When addressing what target group or ‘who’ should be alerted during a hazmat crisis, emergency professionals need to understand the possible hazards associated with a particular type of hazmat event. In the case of West Fertilizer Plant explosion, emergency professionals had access to chemical inventory data reported by the company in their EPCRA mandated Tier II report. This report could have given a clue into the types of hazmat threats associated with this facility. From that, emergency managers could have performed hazard analysis modeling based on the reported substances and their quantities to understand the various threats at the facility and understood each hazard’s spatial impact on the surrounding public. Unfortunately, this analysis takes time and is difficult to perform on-the-fly during an emergency. In the case of West Fertilizer, the Tier II report was not made available or used by the emergency managers or responders ahead of the event.
WHAT & WHEN
The best way to avoid injuries or death when dealing with hazardous materials is to avoid being exposed to the hazards in the first place. This can be accomplished by alerting the public to either shelter-in-place or evacuate – both common protocols for advising the public during a hazmat emergency. Because exposure from hazmat threats can create asphyxiation, burns from fireballs, pool fires, or an explosion like in the case of West Fertilizer, the sooner the public can be notified to take action, the better the likely outcome will be.
With this in mind, any jurisdiction with a Hazmat Tier II facility should have a communication plan and emergency response in place before anything occurs. Historical protocol has been to wait for special Hazmat teams to arrive on the scene and conduct their investigation. This creates a built-in delay in warning nearby communities and residents of precautions they should take. Having this information already on hand and prepared to proactively initiate communications with them directly can save precious time and make a big difference in the lives of nearby residents.
With this in mind, CodeRED has partnered with AristaTek to develop a special HAAS (Hazmat Analytical and Alerting Service) program to assist public safety officials and emergency planners in the event of a hazmat emergency. CodeRED HAAS performs a thorough analysis of a community’s EPCRA Tier II facilities to determine the worst possible hazmat threat during an emergency at that facility. This threat is uploaded into the customer’s CodeRED interface as a shape-file for access at any time during an emergency, letting users know who to alert. HAAS customers also receive a detailed list of accepted best practices for evacuating and sheltering-in-place during a hazmat emergency. This allows users to create accurate messages telling the public what protective action to take in the case of an emergency at a nearby facility. Finally, because this shape file is available at anytime to a user and it already takes into account the worst possible scenario, HAAS customers can issue warnings and protective actions immediately when an emergency is reported to 911, minimizing the public’s exposure.