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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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.