On The Job - Alabama: Major Toxic Chemical Release Forces Widespread Evacuation

Dennis L. Rubin describes the action that followed an early-morning wake-up call to the Dothan Fire Department.


DOTHAN FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Dennis L. Rubin Personnel: 174 career firefighters Apparatus: 12 paramedic engines, two ladder trucks, one heavy rescue, two battalion chiefs, one rehab unit, one air-and-light truck, one rescue trailer, one customer service unit Population: 60,000 Area: 83...


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DOTHAN FIRE DEPARTMENT
Chief Dennis L. Rubin
Personnel: 174 career firefighters
Apparatus: 12 paramedic engines, two ladder trucks, one heavy rescue, two battalion chiefs, one rehab unit, one air-and-light truck, one rescue trailer, one customer service unit
Population: 60,000
Area: 83 square miles

Communications Center: "911 What is the emergency?"

Caller: "Yeah, get the fire department over to Tri-State Plant Food right quick - we got a anhydrous leak."

Communications Center: "You got what kind of leak sir?"

Caller: "An anhydrous leak - we need the fire department just as quick as we can."

Communications Center: "How much has leaked sir? Do you know?"

Caller: "It's, it's leaking, you can't hardly see."

Communications Center: "OK and what's it called - can you spell …"

Caller: "Anhydrous ammonia (heavy breathing) it's ah 1516 East Burdeshaw Street."

Communications Center: "What's your name sir?"

Caller: "Tri-State Plant Food … We need 'em as quick as we can 'cause it's going all in the community."

At 3:03 A.M. on April 11, 2000, this early-morning wake-up call in Dothan, AL, set the stage for our regional emergency response plan to be called into action. Over the following six hours, more than 1,000 residents had to be evacuated and taken to emergency shelters. Dozens of schools and businesses were forced to close, and a 400-bed hospital complex was directed to "protect in place." Due to the ensuing danger, many scheduled surgeries and other procedures had to be delayed at the Southeast Alabama Medical Center.

All of these facts put great pressure on the emergency response community to quickly solve this most difficult problem. The response resources of southeast Alabama were taxed to nearly the breaking point before the "under control" was transmitted. This article will discuss strategy and tactics that were deployed to manage this man-made disaster effectively, efficiently and most importantly safely.

The Call for Help

As was described in the call for help, the plant employee was aware of the level of hazard that the community soon was exposed to by the leaking pipe. The initial dispatch was a "Level 2 hazmat" alarm. This procedure alerts two paramedic engines (four members per unit), a hazardous material unit (one member assigned), a battalion chief, two police cars and an ambulance.

On arrival, Paramedic Engine 5 gave a brief initial report of a heavy odor of ammonia in the area and a large cloud around the plant, and prepared to stage about a half mile from the releasing material. Within seconds, Battalion Chief John Jordan, the central battalion commander, was on location assuming command ("Burdeshaw Command") and striking a second alarm. Two additional paramedic engines, a ladder truck (four members assigned to each company), another ambulance and more police cars got the call for help. Jordan declared the incident a "major incident - hazmat." This action has all 15 senior staff members notified and called back to duty.

These decisions, within the first five minutes on location, paid great dividends throughout the operation. Having the correct amount and type of help at any incident scene is hard to beat, much less when the chips are really down. Before the incident was concluded, the Dothan Fire Department called out 37 agencies and developed an operational staff of over 300 members strong. Our citywide Emergency Operations Facility (EOF) as well as the Houston County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) were pressed into service to manage this emerging situation.

About The Chemical Plant

The chemical leak took place at the Tri-State Plant Food Company, a producer of various types of plant fertilizers for farm and home use. The company started in the 1890s at its current location, so the age and construction of some of the structures were of great concern to our command team. The site stores a large quantity of several types of hazardous materials that are used in the company's manufacturing process.

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