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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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.