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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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.

Evacuation

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.