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...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

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.