Preincident Intelligence of Inactive Buildings, Part 2

By Eric G. Bachman

To read Part 1, click HERE



The Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County (LEPCLC) is tasked with hazardous materials preparedness for the county’s 984 square miles and its nearly 520,000 residents. Pennsylvania is a commonwealth which yields government to the local level. In Lancaster County, there are 60 separate municipalities. Within each municipality are individual police and fire and emergency medical service agencies that can have differing hierarchy, policies, and procedures.

Annually, facilities that use, store, or manufacture hazardous substances at certain thresholds are required to file chemical reports in accordance with Title III (Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act) of the federal Superfund Amendments Reauthorization Act (SARA). The reports, called Tier II Chemical Inventory Reports, are applicable to hazardous substances meeting specific inventory thresholds (see my article in the March 1998 issue of Fire Engineering: “Tier II Chemical Reports—A Pre-planning Resource”). Facilities are required to submit their Tier II report to the LEPC and local fire department.

The LEPCLC is tasked with reviewing each Tier II report to identify any substance classified as an Extremely Hazardous Substance (EHS). When a facility maintains an aggregate amount of EHS at a chemical specific threshold planning quantity (TPQ), the LEPCLC is tasked to develop an off-site emergency response plan (OSERP). The OSERP prescribes potential off-site consequences and actions. Both the Tier II and the OSERP are valuable preparedness tools (see my article in the November 2011 issue of Fire Engineering: “Off-Site Emergency Response Plans”).

It is important to realize that filing a Tier II report represents inventories for the previous calendar year. So, the inventories listed on the report received by March 1, 2012, reflect the inventories during calendar year 2011. For some facilities, the inventories remain consistent year to year. For others, the chemical profile could drastically change and not be recognized by the fire department or LEPC until the following report cycle. In addition, the status of the facility could change as well, becoming vacant or abandoned without notice.

During the annual Tier II submittal period, the LEPCLC makes comparative reviews of filings between years. Facilities from which reports are not received are contacted to determine if they forgot to file a report, reduced their chemical inventory below reportable quantities, or denote other status changes. The LEPCLC annually receives hundreds of Tier II report forms. The county is host to nearly 170 sites alone that use, store, or manufacture at least one EHS. For the 2011 reporting cycle (through March 1, 2012), the comparative process engaged by the LEPCLC was no different. After deadline review, several facilities were identified as not reporting. This often occurs as some facilities forget to report. Each is subsequently contacted for reporting compliance.

One facility did not return feedback from its reminder letters. When calling this facility’s representative contacts listed on the previous Tier II report, we got voice mail, but the voice mail box was full and could not accept the message. The LEPCLC contacted the local fire department to ascertain their knowledge of the facility status. They were unsure. An on-line search found that this once prominent vegetable processor was bought out. It closed; its employees were let go; and its operational equipment auctioned off.

With this chain of events, one could assume that this shell of a building is not as threatening to the community and fire department. And the longer the building sits without incident, the more it deteriorates and subsequently falls off the fire department’s radar as a problemsome target hazard. This is the common mindset in many communities.

While contact with the listed facility representatives was nonexistent, the facility was still on the LEPCLC’s radar because of previous Tier II Chemical Inventory Report filings. Annually, the facility had reported the use of ammonia for cold storage, and an OSERP was in place for off-site releases.

It is the LEPCLC’s protocol to document inactive facilities and deactivate OSERP’s. Thus, a LEPCLC representative initiated a physical investigation. No one and nothing was visible on site (photos 10, 11) except a “For Sale” sign with real estate broker contact information. The broker was contacted and asked if the ammonia system was removed and, if so, to send a letter to the LEPCLC stating such was necessary. The broker did not know and advised that the owner resided overseas. Subsequent contact with the owner proved challenging, but contact was eventually made. Although the site was closed and the production equipment liquidated, the ammonia system was still in place. The owner chose to maintain the ammonia inventory and system to attract certain buyers for the facility’s cold storage attribute.

(10, 11) Unmaintained exterior of vacant vegetable processor.


The owner reported the ammonia tank containing a substantial amount of product; it was being monitored by a local maintenance contractor. The owner provided the contractor information and conducted a meeting with the maintenance contractor, LEPCLC, and local fire department.

The contractor advised that the facility was not electronically supervised and that he and another staffer visit the site three or four times a week to check on things. The meeting included a facility tour meant to ascertain the status and condition of the ammonia vessel. We found that the several thousand-gallon vessel was located outside in an unsecured area (photo 12). Further, the shutoff valve was not locked (photo 13). Although the vessel had no marking or other hazardous material label on it to reveal its contents, it was out in the open and vulnerable to vandalism. Had this review not been conducted, the fire department likely would not recognize the vessel as containing ammonia. The unsecured valve could foster someone unaware of its contents and just “messing” around to cause a release.

(12) Unmarked ammonia storage vessel in an unsecured area.


(13) Unsecured ammonia storage vessel control valve.


The meeting and walkaround was very beneficial in realizing the status and vulnerability of the building and the hazardous materials that were left behind. The contractor was made aware of the preincident intelligence of inactive building emergency service concerns and was requested to lock the valve and be cognizant of other insecurities. The fire department is aware of the structural and infrastructure conditions, limited supervision, and hazardous material storage practices and is now better prepared for potential emergencies.

As previously mentioned, there are gray areas in categorizing inactive sites; this case study is an example. The building owner is known but overseas. The maintenance contractor has certain responsibilities for site upkeep, but must deal primarily with the ammonia storage tank. The site is unsupervised, lending itself as a venue for vagrancy and vandalism. This case study was a successful example of preparing for response to an inactive site. In many other cases, the fire department will not be as fortunate.

Inactive sites, regardless of how they may be categorized, should not be discounted in preincident preparedness efforts; their challenges are ever-present. And unlike some active sites in the community, the challenges of inactive sites are less clear. Being current on inactive sites is important, and any nontraditional resource such as real estate broker should be consulted. Effective preparedness starts with cognizance of the potential. Accidental or intentional, development (of an emergency situation) into actuality is realistic for active and inactive sites alike. Be prepared for all of them.

Photos by author.


Eric G. Bachman, CFPS, is a 28-year fire service veteran and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.

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