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

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 farm, another warehouse and the corporate headquarters. And by letting the loading area and warehouse burn, firefighters eliminated nearly all of the environmental impact of a chemical spill and contaminated runoff.

The products stored and transferred out of the facility contain chemicals used in the painting and coating industries. In addition to the Des Moines facility, Barton Solvents has storage and transfer facilities in West Bend, WI; Bettendorf and Council Bluffs, IA; and Kansas City and Wichita, KS.

At 1:07 P.M., a Barton employee was transferring ethyl acetate from the facilities tank farm via a pipeline into a 330-gallon storage container in a loading area. The worker turned his head for a second and then heard a popping noise that was believed to be a relief valve. The concussion from a small eruption apparently knocked the fill nozzle from the tote, spraying the area with ethyl acetate. The worker's clothing ignited, but he removed it quickly and did not sustain any serious injuries. Another employee attempted to extinguish the fire with a hand-held extinguisher, but prior to the fire being extinguished, the extinguisher ran out of agent. The workers successfully shut the power off to the loading area and assisted with the evacuation of the plant. Thirty-three employees were evacuated without injury. The injured worker suffered first degree burns, but was not transported to the hospital.

Initial Alarms

At 1:10 P.M., the Polk County Communications Center received a 911 call from Barton Solvents reporting a fire on the loading dock. The dispatcher paged the Saylor Township Fire Department for a commercial assignment, TEAMS Box 49-I (Industrial). The Saylor Township Fire Department protects 17 square miles of unincorporated township immediately north of the City of Des Moines. Last year, the department responded to 839 calls for service.

The initial-assignment level requested Engine 4930, Ambulance 4980 and Assistant Chief Scott Cross from Saylor Township and Engine 3335 from the Delaware Township Fire Department. Just before Cross arrived on scene, a second alarm was broadcast by the Communications Center based on additional information from callers and initial reports from law enforcement officers. The second alarm brought to the scene Truck 3960 from the Johnston Fire Department; RIT Engine 1231 from the Ankeny Fire Department and a Haz/Mat Strike Team from the Des Moines Fire Department. The Haz/Mat Strike Team consisted of Hazmat 1, Medic 3, Ladder 1, Haz/Mat Captain Robert Cox, Special Operations District Chief Joe Giudicessi and District Chief Randy Chumbley with a total of 13 firefighters.

Cross arrived on scene at 1:15 and established command. He immediately requested a third alarm and ordered defensive operations. The defensive tactics established were to shut off the valves from the facility's tank farm to the loading area and to establish heavy master streams on the fire. The third alarm brought Engine/Tanker 2546 and Heavy Rescue 2570 from the Altoona Fire Department; Truck 1161 and Tanker 1151 from Ankeny; Tanker 4950 from Saylor; Tanker 3750 from the Grimes Fire Department and Hazmat 5 from Des Moines.

Saylor Engine 4930, Delaware Engine 3335 and Johnston Quint 3960 proceeded onto the plant property and were positioned near the loading dock. A 100-foot, five-inch supply line was hand-laid from a private hydrant on plant property to Engine 4930. A 100-foot, three-inch supply line was hand-laid from Engine 4930 to Engine 3335. The crew from Saylor Engine 4930 was assigned to shut off the valves in the tank farm to stop the flow of any chemicals to the loading area. The crew from Delaware Engine 3335 and additional firefighters set up two unmanned monitors aimed at the loading dock and the seat of the fire. Each engine supplied one monitor with a five-inch supply line. Johnston Quint 3960 was positioned and set up for master stream operations, but was operated due to the orders to evacuate the area.

Command Transferred

Cross requested a fourth alarm at 1:25 P.M. Grimes Engine 3730, an engine from the Polk City Fire Department and Truck 4360 from the Pleasant Hill Fire Department responded. At 1:30, Cross transferred command to Ankeny Deputy Chief John Schilling. The transfer of command was announced over the radio and Schilling began to establish a comprehensive command structure and mitigation plan.

Key chief officers from area fire departments gathered at the command post and assignments were issued. Initially the following sectors were established and assignments were made. Ankeny Lieutenant Mark Dooley, safety; Johnston Lieutenant Chris Jennings, operations; Giudicessi, hazmat; Saylor Ambulance, rehab; Ankeny Captain Steve Udelhofen, staging; Ankeny Captain Matt Porter, interior operations; Polk County Emergency Management Director A.J. Mumm, public information; Polk County Emergency Management Assistant Director Steve Nolan, planning and logistics; and Polk County Sheriff's Department Major Doug Phillips, traffic control and evacuations.

After a careful review of the incident, which included speaking with the management of Barton Solvents, it was determined to evacuate the immediate area. It was also necessary to abandon three apparatus, two of which were flowing water. It was decided to let the two engines continue to flow water unmanned and there was not enough time for Johnston's quint to be removed from the area.

This was a difficult decision for Schilling, since the apparatus were not from his department. This decision was made just prior to the first of several hours of chemical explosions. The fire was spreading into the north warehouse where some 60,000 gallons of liquid chemicals were stored from the loading area. Some of the explosions either erupted in fireballs reaching 300 feet high from the 330-gallon containers or launched 55-gallon drums of burning chemicals 300 feet high and landing up to 200 feet from the storage area.

Personnel Protection

At this time, it was also necessary to move the command post farther from the incident, 600 feet away at the entrance of the facility. Soon after the new command post was established, an officer from a Des Moines Haz/Mat team reported to the incident commander that flames were impinging on three rail tank cars on the east side of the warehouse. It was determined that there were chemicals in the rail cars and there was a possibility of BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion). With this information, the incident commander ordered an immediate evacuation of the facility and occupancies adjacent to the Barton property. Nearly 10 other businesses with up to 400 people were evacuated by Polk County Sheriff's personnel. All units operating in the facility compound moved about a quarter-mile upwind of the incident. The new command post was established in the EFCO manufacturing facility parking lot, a quarter-mile southwest of the Barton facility. It was later discovered through information gained from the Union Pacific officials that the products in the three rail cars did not have the ability to BLEVE; in fact, the rail cars would deteriorate from heat before the possibility of a BLEVE would occur. Moving the command post turned out to be a good move, as the new location gave a quieter and more strategic location for all agencies.

A new staging area was established on the east side of the incident. This was intentionally done in order to keep non-essential personnel away from the command post. The staging officer kept the Incident Commander apprised of the resource pool on a regular basis.

For at least 1½ hours, no personnel were allowed into the facility until the explosions and the flying 55-gallon drums ceased. At 3 P.M., two rotating companies of firefighters entered the facility and established an unmanned master stream in the hallway that separated the affected north warehouse and the unaffected south warehouse. Altoona Engine/Tanker 2546 proceeded into the scene, laying a 1,500-foot, five-inch supply line. Another portable monitor was set up between the two warehouses to stop the fire from spreading to the other warehouse. This monitor was supplied with two 2½-inch lines from Engine/Tanker 2546. Ankeny Engine 1231 hooked onto a municipal fire hydrant and pumped the five-inch supply line to Engine/Tanker 2546.

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.

Communication interoperability, or what turned out to be "communications chaos," was very prevalent that day. The Des Moines metropolitan area has three emergency communications centers, and all three were swamped with calls. The 30 agencies that responded from the local, state and federal levels were all trying to communicate, but operated on different channels. The best and most reliable method to communicate proved to be face to face.

Emergency management had many issues to deal with. EMA had to function as the public information officer. Polk County does not have an emergency notification system, so the best way to let the community know that they were safe was to let the media convey the message. The EMA director/public information officer gave media releases every 30 minutes, even if it was just to let people know that nothing had changed. This proved to be invaluable.

Having two full Haz/Mat Teams on the scene was a luxury. The two teams divided the incident between the east and the west sides of the facility and monitored the conditions on a regular basis.

The incident as a whole was a lesson in itself. The lessons learned in prior training and incidents were what made this incident nearly flawless. Anyone who has spent any time in the fire service has heard several, if not all of the following:

  • "Risk a little to save a little." It was well known that all employees were accounted for, thus no interior attack was necessary. Fire operations were a defensive.
  • "Big fire, big hose." Numerous unmanned master-stream devices were used.
  • "Call for help early." It is better to have help on the way than to not have help when you need help.
  • "Face-to-face communication is the best." Due to the fact that there was such a wide variety of communication issues, face to face worked best.
  • "Keep the media informed." When your main mode of transmitting vital information to the public are the media, you have to keep them informed on a regular basis. The last thing you want is misinformation being broadcast and creating panic.
  • Finally, "Everyone Goes Home." At the end of the day, everyone went home from this incident.

Other agencies that responded and played an integral role in the incident included the Des Moines Police Department; Polk County Sheriff's Office; DMPD/PCSO Metro STAR; Johnston Police Department; Fraser Ambulance Service; Polk County Emergency Management Agency director and assistant director; Polk County Sheriff's Office Communications; Polk County Public Works; Polk County Air Quality; Polk County Public Health; Des Moines Police/Fire Dispatch; American Red Cross; Salvation Army; Iowa Department of Public Safety — State Patrol; Iowa Department of Public Safety — State Fire Marshal; Iowa Department of Transportation; Iowa Department of Natural Resources; Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division; Federal Aviation Administration; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; National Weather Service and Metro Waste Authority.

JOHN SCHILLING, incident commander at this fire, is deputy chief of the Ankeny, IA, Fire Department, responsible for fire suppression, specialty and technical rescue, prevention/plan review, and cause-and-origin investigations. He is a 19-year veteran of the fire service. Schilling's state and national certifications include technical rescue, fire investigation and incident management. He is scheduled to graduate from Upper Iowa University in May 2008 with a bachelor of science degree in public administration. JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.