Industrial/Municipal Relationships and Mutual Aid

By: Ron Kanterman

Most of you reading this are probably municipal firefighters, and most of you probably have commercial or industrial occupancies to deal with in your response district. There are stories of security forces at the gates of large industrial plants or facilities not letting the local fire department in, whether for training, familiarization tours, or preplanning, for the mere reason that the fire chief or the local company commander doesn’t get along with the plant manager or plant fire chief. Maybe it was how the fire prevention inspector handled himself or herself at the last plant inspection. The safety of the plant workers and the surrounding community depends on a good working relationship between the local fire department and industry. Not only will responses be more effective, but every industry has something to offer the community, no matter how big or small. However, you’ll never know until you knock on the gate and open up the dialogue.

Responding in toward the local refinery or chemical plant lights and sirens will be music to the plant manager’s ears; however, take your time if you haven’t preplanned the facility and have some idea what you’re up against. Don’t run in there blind, because you’ll have a good shot of hurting or killing someone.

If local industry is not reaching out, you do it. You both have a lot to offer each other. It’s a matter of putting it all on the table. Only through a good working relationship will lives be saved and the community be allowed to sleep easier at night.

Start with a meeting between the plant manager and the fire chief and their respective staffs. Plant representatives may include the plant fire chief or brigade chief, safety director, environmental manager, and security manager. From the municipal fire department, include the first-due company officer, battalion or district chief, and fire prevention official.

Start with a cursory tour of the plant and request a map of the plant, highlighting access routes, hazardous materials storage, hazardous processes, fire pumps, fire department connections, and other fire protection equipment. Ask for a copy of the plant emergency plan. There isn’t one? Great place to start a working relationship! The plant manager and the fire chief should appoint liaisons for future meetings; however, they should meet annually over coffee. I would venture to say that the fire official or inspector would be the municipal liaison. He/she can get prefire plan information to the local companies and the dispatch office, including changes in occupancies, hazards, and other critical information.

Joint training can be another good team building exercise. Yes, I said team. The only way to solve large industrial problems is with large teams from both sides of the gate working together. Most larger industries have some sort of emergency response group, whether it be an industrial fire department, fire brigade, technical rescue, EMS, or haz-mat team. Take advantage of their knowledge and drill together. Perhaps they belong in the county’s mutual aid system? The knowledge of each other’s SOPs/SOGs or even the one-on-one personal relationships will allow for smoother operations when that dreaded event occurs.

Things to consider:

  1. Once you start the relationship, keep it rolling.
  2. Ask for updated maps and plans every so often, at least annually.
  3. Ensure the local companies get inside the gate for regular tours.
  4. Drill together and share information. Invite the industrial responders to municipal training events.
  5. The fire chief and plant manager should get together at least annually.
  6. Assist the plant with its internal fire prevention program. This may pay big dividends.
  7. Be sure to prefire plan your target hazards.
Ron Kanterman is chief of emergency services for Merck & Co. in Rahway, New Jersey, and a volunteer on call member of the Borough of North Plainfield (NJ) Fire Rescue Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and master’s degrees in fire protection management and environmental science and is an adjunct professor of fire science at Middlesex County College. He is a member of the FDIC staff and advisory board and of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board.

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