On The Job - Iowa: Quick Defensive Attack Controls Hazmat Fire At Des Moines Facility

John Schilling and Jay K. Bradish report on a four-alarm fire at which defensive operations kept flames away from a bulkchemical tank farm and eliminated nearly all of the environmental impact of a chemical spill and contaminated runoff.


On Oct. 29, 2007, a four-alarm fire destroyed a chemical warehouse, loading area and tractor-trailer at the Barton Solvents facility in Saylor Township, Des Moines, IA. By immediately initiating defensive operations, firefighters prevented the fire from spreading to the facility's bulk-chemical tank...


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After pumping over 250,000 gallons of water and letting the fire in the north warehouse consume all available fuels, the fire was stopped at the hallway between the two warehouses. By 7 P.M., the incident had progressed to the salvage-and-overhaul phase. Mutual aid departments were released over the next several hours while the Saylor Township Fire Department remained on scene until late the next day performing overhaul operations. Firefighters operated in the collapsed one-story warehouse to find hidden fires, using 1¾-inch hoselines and booster lines during overhaul operations. Water runoff was contained in two retention ponds on site. After testing by the Polk County Public Works Department, it was determined that all the drinking water and waste water standards were met and the water was released.

Lessons Learned

The incident commander and his team faced numerous issues at this incident. Issues ranged from public safety and health, public notification, ground, rail and air transportation, communication interoperability, constant air monitoring and accountability for all the potentials of the incident. The Des Moines Fire Department monitored the air with four gas detectors. The Polk County Air Quality Division was called to the scene to provide assistance and advice. The Des Moines Haz/Mat Teams placed meters for fixed and mobile monitoring. Particulate meters are set up strategically throughout the county, but they are not mobile monitors. Although a private company contracted by Barton arrived on scene, the contractor realized that the Haz/Mat Teams' monitoring was adequate. The weather was closely monitored by the equipment in both Haz/Mat rigs. Also, there was a constant communications with the National Weather Service (NOAA) in Johnston, 10 miles from the incident.

An After-Action Review (AAR) took place on Nov. 16. All agencies involved in the incident, both public and private, were invited to attend the review, facilitated by Schilling and A.J. Mumm, the Polk County emergency management director. The intent of the review was to address the technical and human factors that affected the incident. The AAR was structured to focus on the 15 Emergency Support Functions (ESF) needed to provide the structure for coordinating interagency and interjurisdictional responses to an incident. All 15 ESFs were addressed to some degree during the incident.

Fighting a fire of this magnitude and visually spectacular was a difficult undertaking. Keeping focused on the issues at hand such as firefighter safety, public safety, environmental safety and even pet safety was a lot for just one person to do. A unified command system was utilized from the beginning of the incident and until the last resource left the scene. All of the general and command staff positions were established with the exception of finance and administration. All information about the incident was funneled to the command post, where it was absorbed into the system and disseminated to the appropriate agency for record or action.

One of the toughest decisions the incident commander had to make that day was to abandon approximately $2 million worth of fire apparatus in the "hot zone." When the evacuation signal was transmitted, it meant now, not after the truck company got its apparatus together or the engine companies disconnected their lines. Fifty-five-gallon metal drums of burning chemicals were randomly flying through the air and 330-gallon containers of chemicals were exploding without notice, all within 100 feet of the apparatus and firefighters. It is all about safety.

Rapid intervention teams have their place, even during defensive operations. During the incident, two companies of firefighters were operating within the facility setting up an additional defensive monitor without the protection of a rapid intervention team.

It was determined at the AAR that the first move of the command post should have been to its final location. At the command post, there was great cooperation between the incident commander and the management of Barton Solvents. At all times, there was a contingent of at least three members of management who could answer questions or make decisions without hesitation. Other key individuals from outside agencies had liaisons at the command post. When needing to speak to people, it is important to not have to hunt them down.

Ground, rail and air transportation was an ever-present issue. The facility is situated in the southwest corner of Interstates 35 and 80. Both interstates were shut down for nearly two hours. For the following four hours, the big issue was getting traffic back to normal and finding those lost travelers who left the interstates and couldn't find their way back.