Officials: West Texas Firefighters Were Trained and Prepared

West (TX) Mayor Tommy Muska said the firefighters were trained to handle the plant explosion, reports Fort Star-Telegram.

“Cody Dragoo, the foreman out at the plant, was a fireman,” said Muska, himself one of the city’s 29 firefighters. “He knew that plant better than anybody. He knew the dangers. He knew the chemicals there. Did we realize it could cause such an explosion? Yes, we knew it was volatile.”

The 50-year-old fertilizer plant stored 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, according to the latest records, the same chemical used to build the deadly bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Other flammable and potentially toxic chemicals were also stored on the grounds.

Available documents indicate that neither the owners nor city officials had told anyone that the plant could explode. The worst scenario was reported to the state as a 10-minute ammonia leak that wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Muska, who said he was in the plant about three hours before the fire, said he has no idea whether reports about the amount of chemicals in the plant are accurate.

He said no one could have prepared for the wave of death and destruction that came with Wednesday’s thunderous explosion, which killed 15 people, including Dragoo and four other West volunteer firefighters.

“A fire just started somewhere and it blew up,” said Muska, who was headed to help when the plant blew. “Why? I’m not going to answer that. I don’t have any clue. We didn’t go in there with our eyes closed. I can tell you that. The men that went in there to fight that, to put it out, knew exactly what they were doing.”

In Texas, professional firefighters must meet training requirements set by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection, and many big-city departments frequently undergo specialized training based on particular hazards.

In Fort Worth, for example, firefighters and members of the Office of Emergency Management participate in disaster drills four to six times a year, said Lt. Tim Hardeman, a spokesman for the Fort Worth Fire Department.

In addition, Hardeman said, “companies that use hazardous materials in their processes also have to have minimum-level training, including drills.”

Requirements for volunteer firefighters, however, are set by local jurisdictions.

“In volunteer fire departments, you might have a fire department that might only have three calls a month and most of those might only be for grass fires,” said Chris Barron, executive director with the State Firemen’s & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas. “So the local jurisdictions will set requirements based on their needs.”

West is one of the volunteer departments whose members obtain certification through the State Firemen’s Association, Barron said.

Twenty of the 29 firefighters were certified or were in the process of being certified to Firefighter 1 standards, which means they were trained in hazardous materials, rescue operations and emergency management, among other areas.

The remaining nine were not listed as having been certified, but they could have been new recruits or working on their certification, Barron said.

Muska said the firefighters had undergone training, both locally and at Texas A&M University, to learn how to deal with chemicals and other hazards. They’d walked the plant’s grounds, he said, and, of course, Dragoo was a member of the department. In addition, they had previously worked a chemical leak at the plant, he said.

The department has held disaster drills, Muska said, “but not of this magnitude.”

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