Rurally Speaking: All Hazard Risk Assessments and Rural Fire Departments

Take a training night and send your crews out to look for “hidden in plain sight” hazards.

By Carl J. Haddon

The other morning, I came across an online post from a good friend and fellow fire instructor. The post was about knowing your (urban) response area, and featured a couple of photos that showed how deceiving the outside front of a building can be, compared to what one might find inside or from a different exterior vantage point. It stressed the need to “expand our field of vision” and really take a better look at our first due.

Later that same day, our county emergency services director came into my office with the newly updated All Hazard Assessment and Mitigation Plan. After taking a good look at the new plan, it made me think of the combination of the post I had seen earlier, and what might be missing from the plan.

Having written, updated, and tested All Hazard Plans for some of our U.S. Territories and Protectorates, I’m familiar with the process and format for these plans. Much of the required information for these plans involves assessing critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, and other essential structures, that could be affected by such things as severe weather, wildfires, terrorism, earthquakes, etc.

After having looked through our rural area’s new plan, I realized that there really is (or should be) much more to an “All Hazards” assessment than what is contained in these plans. Having nothing to do with who wrote a given All Hazards Plan, or where in the country the plan is written, the information that is lacking is important to the likes of rural fire departments, rural EMS systems, and the community at large. Let’s take a look at just a couple of the things that I’m talking about.

Using the premise of my friend’s post from the other morning, I went out and about our small county (population approximately 8,000) and I “expanded my field of vision” as I looked for what I consider overlooked or missed noteworthy hazards. It didn’t take me long to have my mind blown (and I’ve lived in this county for more than 18 years).

Bulk Fuel

The first hazard that I came across was a bulk fuel storage facility. Although small in comparison to fuel storage facilities in other parts of the country, it stores enough fuel to instantly overwhelm local fire resources in the event of a spill or fire. What I also had to remember about this hazard is that our nearest Hazmat Response Team is at least 2.5 hours away (with good road and weather conditions). In case I forgot to mention it, we have two or three of these facilities scattered throughout the county. These properties are NOT fortified with security personnel, razor wire fences, or catchment facilities, making them vulnerable to several potential factors that are used in determining risk threat in traditional plans and assessments.

At least one of these tank farms supplies a decent-sized truck stop/gas station. Additionally, this facility also houses three-axle tanker trucks that deliver bulk gas, diesel, and heating oil to a large number of ranches and private residences throughout the county. This fact reminded me that I too have bulk gas and diesel delivered to my ranch. Down by my horse corrals sit a 300-gallon, above-ground gas tank, and a 500-gallon diesel tank (photo 1, below). Neither my tanks nor the tanks of anyone else I know have any kind of spill containment or firefighting equipment in place at the tank sites.

I have neighbors who have these tanks within a mere few yards of their homes, barns, shops, and outbuildings. I can’t help but imagine that these are all overlooked hazards. None of the local fire departments are equipped with or warehouse enough foam or encapsulator agent to fight a significant flowing fuel Class B fire.

All photos from author

Bulk Propane

The next hazard that caught my eye was all the large propane tanks that most everyone has for their home or business. We don’t have natural gas here in this area, so there’s a choice of heating with propane, electricity, geothermal, or wood. Additionally, we also have a number of propane refill stations at various gas stations throughout the county. Supplying all of these tanks is a large propane storage and transfer facility located right on the interstate that runs through the county (photo 2, below).

I spent more than 25 years of my life in the fire and EMS business in Southern California before moving here to the Rocky Mountains of Idaho; I am NO stranger to earthquakes or responding to earthquake-related emergencies. This area in Idaho also has a number of “active” (not like California) faults. I know it does not take much shaking to dislodge a free-standing 500-gallon propane tank, and the overwhelming damage that can—and does—result when dozens of these tanks leak, become rolling/flying objects, or BLEVE-y.

Haz Mat Transport

There are two (and only two) highways that run through our county: State Highways 93 and 28. These are two-lane, non-lighted highways that connect us with Idaho Falls on one end, and Missoula, Mont., on the other. A minimum of 95% of all our goods and services are trucked on these two highways; they really are our lifelines to the outside world. Not only do these two highways see multiple bulk fuel and propane refill tanks each day, they also see countless big rigs, hauling God Knows What. Some of that God Knows What comes from the Idaho National Laboratory (Google it). Some of it comes to and fro the oil fields of the Dakotas.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share the quick story of the time that a commercial truck miscalculated a left-hand turn on to Main Street and overturned in the middle of town, coming to rest at a gas station. Much to our surprise, we unceremoniously learned that this truck was loaded with incendiary devices that we call “ping-pong balls.” Simply stated, ping-pong balls are “strategically” dropped from helicopters where they basically explode into fire on impact, to create back burns during wildland fires. Overturned truck on Main Street + incendiary ping pong balls + gas station in Rural Idaho = the things that nightmares are made of!

Does your area have “everyday” hazards that don’t make it into your “plan”? Has your department expanded its field of vision to include these hazards in your training and budgeting practices? Take a training night and send your crews out to look for “hidden in plain sight” hazards. I think you’ll be surprised at what you find.

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