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

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.

Because of the quantities of hazardous materials kept on site, the plant is required to file a "Tier II" report annually. These reports are copied and carried aboard the fire department's hazmat units and both battalion commanders' vehicles. This information makes for a great initial reference source at incidents such as this one.

Most of the structures at Tri-State are multi-story, non-combustible buildings. They are constructed of a steel framework assembly covered by corrugated steel panels. A building of this type does not add to the fire loading; however, it will collapse rapidly during fire exposure as the heated metal (lightweight steel) fails at about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Further, all of the buildings in the manufacturing areas were covered with several inches of a dusty product residue. Our concern was for the potential for a dust explosion if there was an ignition of the anhydrous ammonia during this incident. That ignition did not occur, but we had planned for this possibility by stretching several 13/4-inch attack lines to the exposure buildings.

Many large fixed-storage tanks are located at this plant. The tanks store the various raw materials needed for the fertilizer manufacturing process. The hazmat leak that we experienced was from the bulk anhydrous ammonia storage tank area. The plant has two 18,000-gallon tanks and one 14,000-gallon tank that supply a manifold piping system that flows through a high-pressure pump leading into the production area. The pipe had sheared off at a relief valve flange near the tank closest to the building. The break was about one inch in diameter, operating at about 700 psi, and the pipe had been leaking for nearly six hours.

It was estimated that 6,000 gallons of product leaked out into the community. The cause of the pipe shearing off is of great concern to the nearby neighborhoods. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrived on location a few hours into the incident and took over the cause investigation. At press time, no information has been released by the FBI about the cause of the leak.

About The Leaking Product

Anhydrous ammonia is a colorless gas with a very pungent odor. Although the government allows it to be classified as a nonflammable gas, it will burn in the range of 16-25%. Of course, the fire hazard of anhydrous ammonia greatly increases when in the presence of oil, LPG, gasoline and other flammable materials.

Many of these products were close to the leaking pipe. The vapor density of the material is 0.6, meaning it is lighter than air. In our case, however, due to the 100% humidity and light winds, the releasing ammonia vapor turned into a huge, lingering vaporous cloud. This cloud engulfed the plant area as well as the surrounding neighborhoods.

Anhydrous ammonia has a great affinity for water. The National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) describes this affinity as a water solubility of 34%, meaning that the material readily mixes with water. This feature of the product proved helpful later in the incident.

Health concerns include direct contact to the body or inhalation exposures. When anhydrous ammonia comes in contact with human cells, it is corrosive. Expect irritation, burns, shortness of breath, chest pains and pulmonary edema if long-term or high-concentration exposure occurs. Further, there is a risk of a thermal burn (frostbite) as the liquefied product returns to a gaseous state.

Treatment protocols for exposure to this chemical are simple and straightforward: Any victim must be relocated to fresh air; exposed areas are flushed with lukewarm water for at least 15 minutes; contaminated clothing is removed; and the patient receives appropriate advanced life support care and is transported to a medical facility. With more than 30 people needing some level of emergency medical care, this information was referenced early and often.

Operational Strategies

Eight strategic goals were addressed in our incident action plan at this alarm:

  • 1. Incident command system.
  • 2. Deny access and control the outer perimeter.
  • 3. Evacuate the impacted citizens and visitors.
  • 4. Provide shelter for the evacuees.
  • 5. Stop the leaking product.
  • 6. Handle other emergency alarms.
  • 7. Activate the EOF and EOC for regional support.
  • 8. Incident demobilization and recovery.

Incident Command System

The first concern was to establish an effective incident management system that could account for our members, their safety and support as well as resolve this dangerous situation. Because of the size and complexity of this alarm, a unified command process was the structure used to manage the various agencies (moving parts) that would end up responding.

The fire department was clearly the lead agency due to the type of problem that we faced; as such, it provided the person to fill the role of incident commander. The police department deployed nearly 100 officers, thereby having a major part in the incident command system. Other agencies, such as the FBI and the Houston County Emergency Management Agency (EMA), were represented at the command post to efficiently, effectively and safely resolve this unfolding disaster.

The unified command element is the only solution available to bring such a diverse outfits together at 3 o'clock in the morning to play as a single team when the "sky is falling." There is no room for ego, posturing or other self-serving actions while the people we are sworn to protect are taking a beating from chemical exposure.

Controlling The Perimeter

The next priority of the action plan was to deny access to the danger zone. Each street leading into the impacted area was barricaded and secured. Dothan has a "one-man, one-car" policy for its police department. This resource paid big dividends. More than 80 patrol cars were directed to street entrances surrounding the evacuation zone. Often, the cost of maintaining a large fleet of police cruisers is called into question. On this night, however, we used nearly every "black and white" that we owned.

A critical element of isolation and access control was to develop a detailed tracking ability. Pre-plan maps were used to keep up with police car placement and perimeter control. Due to the complexity of this work, the recording of the situation status took two aides (one firefighter and one police officer) to support the incident commander's efforts to keep track of this massive amount of important information.


The evacuation corridor was initially one square mile around the crippled plant. Battalion Chief Samuel Crawford took on this awesome responsibility. The 2000 Emergency Response Guidebook highlights anhydrous ammonia, referring the user to the isolation table. The table specifies that a minimum downwind protection zone of 0.7 miles is required to maintain a safe distance from the leaking product.

Command expanded this suggested zone to one square mile. Within that area were more than 1,000 people who for the most part were asleep. What a shocked look our troops got when they pounded on the front doors of the threatened homes - it's not every day that a police officer wearing a gas mask or a fully turned out firefighter wakes up a family with the message to "get out of your home."

Detailed maps were kept and updated to indicate which homes were evacuated. The list started off as a street-by-street record. Later into the alarm, a map that included residents was used to track the evacuation. The command team worked to prevent duplication or omission of addresses of homes to be evacuated. A few streets were double covered, but no homes were left out of the notification process.

Evacuation Shelters

Once the residents were up and out of bed, we had to provide for their shelter. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army were activated by the EMA. The order was given to have the evacuees go to the Westgate Recreation Center, the city's primary shelter. In all, three shelters were activated to house the displaced people. The Westgate facility can house and feed 600 evacuees. Among the senior staff reporting back to work was Battalion Chief Larry Williams, who was assigned the role of shelter liaison officer.

By the time the shelter was opened, more than 50 people were awaiting entry, but many others had no transportation. Several makeshift bus stops were established and buses were called in from the Dothan City Schools and the Wiregrass Transit Authority (the municipal bus service) to make continuous passenger pickups. One Dothan school bus manager is a Salvation Army volunteer. The needed buses were ready quickly under the direction of Morris Bates, who is assigned a fire department pager and works regularly under the department's command system.

Many of the evacuees were showing signs and symptoms of exposure to the leaking ammonia. Others had pre-existing medical conditions that required medications that had been left behind. The shelter soon took on the look of a small triage, treatment and transportation area. About 30 people were transported to one of our two hospitals. More than 100 others needed a wide array of emergency medical support.

Six paramedics were dispatched to the shelters to keep up with the EMS demands and provide general assistance. Williams (the shelter liaison) is the fire department's EMS manager, so the extra duties of supervising this unfolding mass-casualty incident fit with his experience. A small warehouse of medical supplies (oxygen, monitors, blankets, etc.) had to be sent to the shelters. The shelter kept in contact by telephone with the two hospitals to determine which patients would be transported to which facilities. This action removed a lot of stress from the command team and made a more sense than trying to relay information through too many people.

Controlling The Leak

The next strategic benchmark was to make entry into the huge (and ever-growing) gas cloud and stop the flow of hazardous product. Battalion Chief Mose Saliba was given the nod to head the hazmat branch, assisted by Battalion Chief Philip Prince as the incident safety officer. Three paramedic engines, one hazmat unit, one ambulance, an air support unit and six called-back technicians were needed to mount an effective attack.

Safety suggested and the incident commander confirmed that "Level A" encapsulated clothing was required for personnel entering the "hot zone." Decontamination was established and backup and entry teams were identified, medically screened, hydrated and stuffed into those "body bags with a view."

It took a while to gather the resources and make the first entry into the vapor cloud. The pressure being exerted on the responders by plant workers was intense - they wanted us to jump in and close the valve immediately, without regard for the proper procedures or regulations. Understandably, they were anxious to eliminate the problem, but so were we.

The first entry began well, but the entry team soon became disoriented and lost in the dense, white vapor cloud. After a few tense minutes, the hazmat officer was able to help the entry team find its way back to the "warm zone," to safety and to go through decontamination.

As the initial team found its way out, the hazmat branch ordered a 600-foot lifeline rope, which is carried by the heavy and tactical rescue team. The second entry team used the rope to serve as a quick way back to safety. Further, this team made its way to the leaking tank and tied off the rope, which then served as a "road map" for the third entry team. Knowing that we were getting close to locating the leak in the piping, a 13/4-inch hoseline was carried into the cloud. Team 3 used the fog water spray to move and absorb some of the leaking anhydrous ammonia. Under the protection of the flowing nozzle, the team located the leak and closed a handle wheel "upstream" to stop the flow of dangerous product.

It took about five hours to complete these actions. Considering the conditions, the time to assemble the needed resources and the temperature, the under-control time was outstanding. To insure that the hazmat branch had the appropriate resources ready to go, the U.S. Army were called in to help. The Fort Rucker, AL, Fire Department was called and sent 10 hazmat technicians and a hazmat unit under the command of Fire Chief Ken Klien. Although we did not need to use this resource, it was great knowing that it was on location awaiting assignment.

Another critical function for us was to be able to answer other requests for assistance during this incident. The fire department handles about 25 calls per day (8,500 runs per year). We typically see a spike for service requests during the morning and afternoon rush hours. This day was typical. Nine alarms were dispatched during the time it took to terminate "Burdeshaw Command." By calling back 88 members we staffed four reserve paramedic engines and one reserve ladder. In conjunction with four more mutual aid engines to cover stations, we managed to stay in business. Each out-of-town engine was assigned a member with a Dothan 800 MHz radio and citywide map books.

When a "major incident" is transmitted, our senior officers evaluate the need for activation of the city EOF and county EOC. Due to the complexity, scope and impact of this incident, both were pressed into service. The EOF coordinated dozens of agencies and activities to ensure that the needs of the incident and city coverage issues were met. Battalion Chief Richard Mercer gathered, tracked and disseminated a tremendous amount of information. By using the incoming data, the EOF coordinated with the EOC. Regular situation status and resource status was provided between centers. The county was called on to dispatch multiple resources into the city while looking out for the remaining citizens and visitors to their community. Early activation, proper staffing, communications, coordination and cooperation proved to be the key to a smooth functioning emergency management program.

The final consideration was to bolster documentation, demobilization of emergency response resources and to help our citizens and neighbors recover from this incident. The FBI directed the recovery of certain piping components. (Two field agents are assigned to Dothan and they worked with a supervisor agent from Mobile.) Fire companies were returned to service by sending the most fatigued units home first. All call-back members were released from duty after a quick debriefing. Other members were held over to return front-line equipment to ready status and reserve apparatus to their home stations.

The hazmat unit was nearly stripped. Many items had to be replaced, while some equipment was purchased that day. All of the contaminated "stuff" was collected up by a hazmat cleanup contractor for disposal.

To help the community recover, we had to start by transporting all of the evacuees back home by bus. This action took several hours to complete. Three fresh fire companies and about a half dozen police cruisers patrolled the impacted neighborhoods to check on people and property. Several residents who live closest to the plant asked to have their homes ventilated and we obliged. In addition, some residents wanted to talk to the government about various issues relating to losses. We helped them get in contact with the EMA, which served as referral agency (this relieved a lot of tension that may have otherwise been directed at the fire department).

The local media were helpful in getting the evacuate message out. Reporters waited for the fire department public information officer (PIO), Captain Ed Roberts, to make his rounds. Emergency response officials held a detailed press conference at 1 P.M. for local media as well as TV news crews from Mobile and Montgomery. Each agency was given an "open mike" to discuss its part in the incident. One TV station covered the entire conference live.

Operational Highlights

After command was terminated and residents were allowed to return home, the entire city response team prepared for a formal incident critique. A list of operational highlights was assembled:

  • No members of the various response agencies received any injuries.
  • Incident command was used to nearly its fullest to manage the 300-plus responders and the 100-plus support volunteer personnel.
  • The evacuation process was rapid and thorough. With the help of the police department we had a tremendous cache of resources to handle this assignment.
  • On-scene media relations were effective. We were able to get out information about the evacuation and shelter facilities quickly and repeatedly. The afternoon press conference gave the media full access to all of the response agencies.
  • Interagency cooperation was key at this alarm. From the FBI to the rural ambulance provider, all agencies worked under and supported one, central incident action plan.
  • The county EOC and Dothan EOF performed better than advertised. State, regional and local coordination was handled without a glitch.
  • We received dozens of calls and notes from members of the community describing how pleased they were with the response of the entire emergency team. The eight firefighters who made entry into the hazard zone and shut off the leaking valve were selected by a Dothan TV station as "Hometown Heroes." The members enjoyed the notoriety and it was great coverage for the fire department. Several large corporations hosted a "responder thank you" dinner for more than 200 responders and their families.

Lessons Learned & Reinforced

During the incident critique, a number of lessons learned and reinforced were discussed:

  • There is a pressing need for a large command post vehicle in which command team members from the police and fire department can work shoulder to shoulder. A police cruiser was matched up to the back of a fire department command vehicle. This got us through the event, but it was difficult to communicate and coordinate using the awkward platforms. A unified command post vehicle is under construction.
  • An "evacuate" doorknob hanger was developed in the aftermath of this call. The idea is to use this bright green marker to help keep track of areas that have been or need to be searched.
    Further, it will serve as a notice to someone who arrives late to a home that has already been cleared. In addition, if the occupant is asleep or hard of hearing, the doorknob hanger can be a visual clue to get out.
  • The Red Cross asked us for a much closer evacuee (shelter bound) count so that preparations can be made as soon as possible.
  • A special-needs (initially a higher level of medical support) shelter should have been opened to accommodate people with medical-support requirements.
  • When visibility is reduced or zero, a lifeline must be taken in with the operational crew. The first entry team becoming lost was an uncomfortable feeling for all involved members.
  • Thermal imaging cameras would have been a great help. Command and the hazmat branch could have kept up with the crews' movements in and out of the gas cloud. An additional camera might have been useful for the entry teams to use to help locate the leaking pipe. However, it would have to have been protected from the spewing acid vapor.


This was one of the best-run large-scale incidents that the author has ever attended. The unified command process was a key to keeping everyone informed and working within the same action plan. Each agency performed at maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

Although this was a difficult situation, it could have been many times worse. Regional preparation and training once again "saved the day" and helped us prevent harm in our community.

A local physician, Dr. Steve Stokes, is pursuing a grant to fund research on the long-term effects of the anhydrous ammonia leak on humans. If funded, this study would gather some of the first data on the long-term effects of this readily available commodity.

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Dothan, AL, Fire Department.