To say that today’s world is complicated would be an understatement. Fire departments respond to calls for service—both emergency and nonemergency—that require more knowledge and expertise than ever before. Depending on the number and types of industries and commercial businesses in your community, fire departments and firefighters are probably hard-pressed to know everything required to respond appropriately and safely to every potential emergency. It might not be realistic to expect that firefighters have the expertise necessary for every industry in their community or even in their first-alarm district.
Fire departments and firefighters need to learn as much as possible about the products and processes in their response areas prior to any emergency occurring. Failure to do so could lead to an inappropriate or inadequate response, wrong actions, and even a disaster. The only way to get this information is to work with the industries in your community. Even though “right-to-know” laws exist, they alone are not sufficient to adequately prepare emergency response crews. Further, there are nonemergency situations where special knowledge about products and processes is needed.
Every Industy Is Unique
The intimate knowledge of the specifics within an industry lies within the industry itself. This may be because of the complexity of the process or product or because of its proprietary nature (trade secret). Regardless, fire department personnel will not get the information they need without interacting with industry. Those working in industry know their products best, the dangers they present, and the best way to handle situations when there is some type of accident or emergency.
Often, fire prevention personnel have the first contact with industry through normal inspection practices. It is appropriate to discuss this issue during the inspection and gather as much relevant information as possible. Identify people in industry for specific knowledge in the event of an emergency. These individuals come from the maintenance staff, are chemists or engineers, and might even be a team of people, depending on the complexity of the industry. Regardless, identifying the human resources available to help is crucial.
Sometimes departments are alerted to a new industry in their response area when it opens. They may become aware through a permitting or licensure process. Building officials or others involved in new operations may also find out about these businesses. Occasionally fire chiefs are invited to ribbon cuttings or grand openings. Fire departments must take advantage of opportunities to learn as much about industry as they can. Whoever makes the discovery should identify a good contact so personnel can follow up. In most cases, those in industry see the value of an informed fire department and are willing to cooperate.
Have a Plan
After establishing contact, the suppression crews need to get involved. If at all possible, tour the facility and gather information that can be used to complete a preincident plan (commonly known as a preplan). Familiarity with the site, structure, and process is vital to a successful operation should an emergency arise. To help build a good relationship, the prevention officer, fire chief, building official, or whoever made the initial contact should make the introductions of the suppression forces and industrial personnel.
Using an entire suppression crew allows many perspectives on potential issues. It also gets more people involved, which will help with reconnaissance should something happen. The more people know about the challenges a particular industry creates during an emergency, the better for the whole crew. If there is a limit on the number of people who may take the tour at one time, be considerate of the business. Most of the time, the business will accommodate you, either allowing a big group or conducting multiple tours. Regardless, respect its position.
In some cases, a more detailed plan is necessary. The industry may be required by law to have one. If so, it should share the plan with the fire department, which should have some input into the plan, and it should make sense inside and out. If a plan is not required, encourage industry to develop one specific to the industry, its raw materials, its process, and even its location. As the risks increase, the details of any plans should reflect this concern.
Fire suppression crews must have access to these plans during an emergency. Technology allows for this to happen, but not all departments have the capabilities. Hard copies, sometimes easier to use than electronic copies, can be used. However you access it, just be sure you can when necessary.
Not all emergencies associated with a particular industry happen on-site. The raw materials need to be shipped in and the finished products shipped out. Emergencies can occur whether shipments are coming or going. Having a technical resource at the business that you can access for advice is extremely valuable. In almost all cases, industry personnel know more about the product or process than anyone on the fire department does. Their inside knowledge will make any emergency run smoother and have a better outcome.
Even though the fire department gathers information from an industry, this should not prevent the department from doing its homework to learn as much as possible about the product or process. Fire departments have a fiduciary responsibility to represent the community for its own protection. Fire departments may need to perform research to learn more or double check information provided from industry. Look at standards, laws and ordinances, and other similar practices. Though specific and unique industries are usually the best source of information, doing a little double checking is never a bad idea.
Departments that build better relationships with industry get more information and have more resources available to them should something bad happen. Departments need to work on these relationships as a way of improving services. Fortunately, emergencies of this type are not frequent, but when they do occur they are very dangerous. Fire departments typically do not have a great deal of experience so they need to rely on those who do. Industry needs to be viewed as a partner, and the fire department should embrace all efforts to work together. Only then can a fire department take the necessary steps to be prepared.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.