Gloucestershire's Chief Fire Officer Jon Hall sends message in wake of Texas fertiliser explosion

IN THE wake of the explosion in Texas, Gloucestershire’s Chief Fire officer Jon Hall is considering the role of the Local Resilience Forum in preparing the county should it ever face an incident on that scale.

CFO Hall, who is also the UK’s lead officer for National Resilience, said: “We are all saddened as we watch events unfold in West, Texas where a fertiliser plant has exploded.

“From a fire service perspective, we have incredible respect for the volunteer fire departments that look after vast areas of the USA and are keeping our fingers crossed for the initial emergency responders who are still unaccounted for as this is written.”

Unfortunately, plants like the one in West Texas are known to be high risk and that’s why close working with emergency services is essential.

CFO Hall said: “Ammonia Nitrate fertilisers are a well known risk in our business. The very energy within it that helps crops grow is the same energy that can sustain substantial fires and, in the right conditions, explosions.

“Indeed, fertiliser bombs were a characteristic of terrorist activity throughout the 70's and 80's and are still used to create improvised devices today.”

UK production and storage sites are regulated by the Health and Safety Executive and plans are in place with local emergency services for response if necessary.

CFO Hall added: “Typical problems facing crews when they respond to a fertiliser fire, apart from casualty recovery and rescue, include preventing explosion by isolating bulk stocks wherever possible, managing the toxic smoke plume which can cause as much harm as the fire itself.

“They also have to stop contaminated water run-off from firefighting operations entering the watercourse or domestic drinking supplies.

“These are all undertaken in partnership with agencies such as the Environment Agency, Thames and Severn Trent Water.

“High volume pumps and decontamination units will be called from around the country to help with operations and national plans for supporting major incidents will kick-in.

“The Local Resilience Forum in Gloucestershire exists to consider precisely this type of scenario and has well-practiced plans for every element of a disaster.

“Each of these plans is owned and managed by a lead agency often a local authority or emergency service.

“When disaster strikes, we need confidence that the plans will be implemented and will all work together seamlessly to create an effective response.”

In an event like the Texas fire, a number of things need to come into play: • Mass casualty plans affecting the ambulance service and local hospitals. Bed clearing and recall of medical staff are all included. Triage areas where casualties can be prioritised and receive initial treatment need establishing.

• Communication plans - both for emergency services to talk to each other but also to ensure that we can talk direct with communities to let them know what is happening and what they should do.

• Holding areas - events like this see emergency services coming from all over both the county, neighbouring areas and national teams travelling some distance to get here. They need marshalling, briefing, deploying, feeding and watering possibly for many days.

• Displaced people shelters - a team of volunteers will set-up emergency rest centres which will be managed by a team of volunteers through district councils.

CFO Hall concluded: “I am reassured both by the professionalism of local emergency services and also by the way all parties come together through the LRF to create a well-oiled machine that can support communities when crisis hits.

“Whilst thinking of all those affected in Texas, we all hope and pray that the plans we work so hard on are not needed closer to home.”

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