Chemical Incident Impact Discussed In Terms of People, Community Cost
Over 100 representatives from many fields recently attended a conference on handling chemical emergencies. The two-day session at Ohio State University’s Disaster Research Center (DRC) addressed both planning and response to acute emergencies.
The participants represented such interest groups as emergency services, industry, academia, government, unions, medical professionals and consumer advocates. They came from Italy, Canada, Switzerland and throughout the United States. At least seven other fire service representatives were there, and I represented the International Society of Fire Service Instructors.
The focus of the sessions was on the social behavior associated with planning for and responding to chemical emergencies. Although major loss of life in chemical emergencies is rare compared to other disasters, the economic, political, psychological and social losses can be great. Dr. E. L. Quarantelli, DRC director, noted the Three Mile Island as a good example: People were the problem.
Howard Fawcett, from the American Chemical Society, talked about the changing nature of acute chemical hazards. He was concerned about the people who design systems for handling chemicals. Fawcett also discussed aspects of response by emergency services and cited several poorly handled incidents.
Local planning surveyed
Kathleen Tierney described DRC findings on preparedness from a 19-community survey of chemical emergency planning and after visits to 20 actual emergency sites. She stressed the importance of planning but felt little had been done to prepare because chemical threats are not really understood.
The DRC survey on preparedness looked at such items as general threat agents and risk, organizational perceptions of values and roles, and working relationships between the involved groups. An apparent breakdown of the planning aspect between the public and private sectors was shown. Even worse, some public agencies have failed to coordinate preparedness, according to Tierney.
A major challenge to planners is moving the available information, materials and resources beyond the small group to the overall community. One result of the DRC activities has been a manual prepared by Tierney: “A Primer for Preparedness for Acute Chemical Emergencies.”
The DRC survey findings on response were described by Quinten Johnson, a former staff member now with the Coast Guard. With 4.5 million different chemicals in use, it becomes difficult to select the proper response to an incident. Nevertheless, any failure to identify a chemical or to use the right resources can be very costly to the community.
Johnson told what happened in San Francisco when a bag of unknown white powder fell off a truck on the Bay Bridge. As a precaution the bridge was shut down for nine hours while the powder was tested. It was determined to be harmless paint resin, but the incident resulted in a direct cost and business disruption loss of half a million dollars. Ignoring a truly hazardous chemical spill could be even more costly.
On-site coordination through command posts and development of emergency operations centers is not being done in many situations, according to Johnson. Where evacuation is required it is done by word of mouth in many cases. When ordered, however, there is greater acceptance of evacuation because of the fear of chemicals.
The actual incidents studied by DRC showed a notable lack of preplanning, although most tasks remain the same for chemical and natural emergencies. Disaster plans should be parallel for all incidents, Johnson said; it’s easier to use existing plans rather than build new plans for chemicals. Many well-developed plans in industry could be easily applied to a community, but there seems to be inadequate crossover between the public and private sectors.
In a following panel session, Robert Graziano explained the difficulty a small local community has in handling any major chemical emergency. The cost of equipment is beyond its capability, based on the infrequent occurrence of these incidents.
Robert Zarle, from the Summits County, Ohio, Sheriffs Department, noted the lack of training programs for police officers who may be first responders to an emergency scene.
Group discussion also explored the concern for getting all of the affected people together at the local level to be ready to use the disaster plan.
How to assess community vulnerability to chemical hazards was covered by another group. Building and fire department inspections are key elements for determining the location of chemical hazards in a community. Other sources of information include the yellow pages of the telephone directory, health departments, insurance agents, manufacturing associations and the Chamber of Commerce. Sample surveys of transportation areas can also be used.
Statistical data on the increase in hazardous materials incidents were presented by Hilary Whittaker, director of the emergency preparedness project at the National Governors’ Association (NGA). In a five-year period from 1973 through 1977, there were reports of 1170 natural disasters and 291 involving hazardous materials. But in the first six months of 1978 alone, 423 natural disasters were reported compared to 528 involving hazardous materials.
A major concern of governors, according to Whittaker, is the management of hazardous materials incidents and fixed nuclear accidents. A project of the NGA will attempt to coordinate emergency management at the state level. Presentations to governors of a comprehensive emergency management system will cover prevention, planning, response and recovery.