Hazmat Response in the Heartland

Most of the recent firefighter deaths in the United States involving hazardous materials occurred in the nation's heartland. Incidents in rural places like Burnside, IL, population 242; Albert City, IA, population 709; and the unincorporated Ghent, WV...


Most of the recent firefighter deaths in the United States involving hazardous materials occurred in the nation's heartland. Incidents in rural places like Burnside, IL, population 242; Albert City, IA, population 709; and the unincorporated Ghent, WV, have resulted in the deaths of firefighters and...


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Most of the recent firefighter deaths in the United States involving hazardous materials occurred in the nation's heartland. Incidents in rural places like Burnside, IL, population 242; Albert City, IA, population 709; and the unincorporated Ghent, WV, have resulted in the deaths of firefighters and other emergency responders. Two firefighters died in Burnside and two in Albert City. In Ghent, a firefighter, an EMT and a building inspector died along with a civilian.

Over the years, hazmat incidents that resulted in large numbers of firefighters and civilians being killed and injured also occurred in rural areas. In Waverly, TN, population 4,028 (fewer in 1978), 16 people were killed, including the town's fire chief, police chief and five firefighters; in Kingman, AZ, population 27,000 (less in 1973), 11 firefighters and one civilian died. Other hazmat incidents occurred in rural America that resulted in catastrophic property loss, but did not cause loss of life because of the prudent actions of emergency response personnel and perhaps a bit of luck.

Crescent City, IL, population 631, had a major train derailment in 1970 with several BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions) that resulted in injuries, but no deaths. An Illinois state trooper who responded to the incident and was familiar with propane and its hazards moved firefighters out of harm's way prior to the rail tank cars exploding, which likely saved their lives.

Weyauwega, WI, population 1,806, had a major train derailment and fire in 1996, but no one was killed or injured, although the entire community, including a nursing home, was evacuated for 21 days. This incident scene was similar to the Waverly, TN, disaster and the fire chief of Weyauwega said it was the lessons learned from the Waverly incident that caused them to take the precautions they did, including evacuating the entire community.

All of the incidents mentioned involved the same type of hazardous materials - flammable liquefied petroleum (hydrocarbon) gases. These gases included propane, butane and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is a mixture of hydrocarbon gases. All of them are extremely flammable, have large expansion (from liquid to gas) ratios and are asphyxiants (meaning they displace oxygen in the air). They have low flashpoints, low boiling points and are heavier than air.

These gases are not refrigerated, so the temperatures of the liquids are close to the ambient temperatures where they exist. Therefore, these materials exist as a liquid in their container well above their boiling point in most ambient conditions in the United States. That is where the term "boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion" (BLEVE) originates. When a container is breached during a BLEVE, all of the liquid in the container is released and almost instantly expands and turns into a gas. This is a violent process that usually rips apart containers and rockets parts of the container thousands of feet from the initial location. If the material in the container is flammable and locates an ignition source, a fireball may also result. It is this BLEVE process that resulted in the deaths and injuries in the communities previously mentioned. Several factors involving liquefied gas containers can result in a BLEVE. Flame impingement on the vapor space of the container weakens the metal rather quickly. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics indicate that most BLEVEs occur within 15 to 20 minutes of the start of flame impingement.

Containers can also be damaged during derailments and other accidents. This damage can weaken the integrity of a container. Increases in ambient temperature or heat from adjacent fires can cause an increase in pressure within a container. At some point, the weakened portion of the container can no longer handle the pressure increase and the container comes apart violently.

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