1964 Truck Explosion Offers Hazmat Preplanning, Response Lessons

In June 1964, an early morning explosion involving a truck containing ammonium nitrate and other blasting agents killed six, including three firefighters, and destroyed three fire apparatus. Although on a much smaller scale, like the 2013 West, Texas (15 killed) and the 1947 Texas City disasters (about 600 killed), the incident involved ammonium nitrate. A 1917 Halifax, Nova Scotia explosion involving munitions devastated the area and killed about 2,000. Read the original 1964 Fire Engineering article HERE.

Eric G. Bachman, hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster (PA) Emergency Management Agency and a member of the local emergency planning committee (LEPC), offers his thoughts below.

Planning for potential transportation incidents should include identifying the chemicals used to manufacture or support processes at businesses and industries in your locale and mutual aid areas. Outside bulk tanks can reveal the presence of commodities that will frequently be transported through the community. For example, in my area, a local semiconductor manufacturing facility has several fixed outside bulk tanks of liquid oxygen, sodium hydroxide, and acids.  Now is especially timely to review federally mandated chemical reports, which are required to be sent to the local fire department by March 1 annually. These reports will list commodities (those that meet certain minimum inventory reporting thresholds) that likely will be encountered locally in over-the-road or rail transit.

The fluidity of transportation makes emergency preparedness difficult. Although transportation regulations mandate placards for certain commodity shipments, it is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of vehicles are improperly placarded or not placarded at all. This further complicates emergency assessment and operations.   

Preplanning for a transportation incident is more an art than a science, since it is impossible to theorize a planned response for every transported chemical. But there are tools available today that were not in place in 1964; using these, first responders can study and contemplate potential incidents. One is the information available from your local emergency planning committee (LEPC), which promotes community preparedness for hazardous material incidents. LEPCs may have conducted a commodity flow study (CFS) on the types and sometimes the frequency of certain commodity shipments through the community. Establish a relationship with your LEPC for CFS information. And if the LEPC has not performed a CFS, urge it to do so. Known chemicals can be studied to understand their physical and chemical characteristics and applied to incident operations.

A second tool is the United States Department of Transportation Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). It offers a dangerous cargo index and provides guidance for the initial response phase of an incident. Even if the specific commodity is not known, recognizing any element of affixed placards can, at the very least, identify the hazardous family and be correlated to the placard ‘family’ guide on pages 6 and 7 (2012 edition) A review of 2012 ERG revisions to the 2008 edition is here.

Considering the frequency of improper placarding, the rule of thumb is to use Guide 111 for unknown or mixed cargo incidents. It suggests the Isolation and Evacuation distance for a fire involving a tank, a rail car, or a tank truck is a half-mile in all directions. For an explosive (if indeed the trailer of the 1964 incident was placarded), the ERG suggests Guide 112 or 114. Guide 112 prescribes an isolation distance and emergency worker evacuation for a trailer fire at one mile. Guide 114 suggests an isolation and emergency worker evacuation distance of one-third of a mile.   

A third tool is having a comprehensive knowledge of your transportation system (Fire Engineering, February 1998: ‘Pre-Incident Surveying of Highway Hazards’). Identify structural and environmental exposures and develop plans to notify the public for potential evacuation or shelter-in-place recommendations. Know the terrain, drainage pathways, and, if installed, storm water outfalls for liquid spill mitigation. Identify the location of water sources, test your water delivery abilities, and realize what operations you can and cannot maintain or sustain.

Arguably, a fourth tool includes department policies and procedures for response to transportation incidents. Risk management is a continual incident assessment practice. As unpopular as it may be to some personnel and the public, sometimes the most appropriate action is to keep everyone away and let the incident run its course.


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