10 Questions When Seconds Count: Preparing for Those Crucial First Minutes of a Chemical Emergency

Alan Lakein famously said: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

It’s a reminder that we all need to adopt a more deliberate and conscientious approach to risk management and improve planning, design and preventive strategies as they apply to industry, the public sector and their environmental interfaces. That said, both recent and historical events illustrate that despite our best efforts, emergencies can, do and will continue to occur. It’s a disconcerting but inescapable fact.

Hence, what is crucially important is how prepared we are to respond to these inevitable events.

In the context of a chemical release, in those first critical moments after a roll over, derailment, explosion or other loss of containment, the responders face what we call the “information gap.” Where is the release coming from? Where is it headed? How fast will it get there? How toxic will it be and how do we decide initial actions and protective measures?

Knowing the answers to these questions – in real time – can literally be a matter of life or death.

Here are just some of the questions a properly designed system should be able to answer:

1. Which areas are potentially at risk?

This is the key question during any emergency. As soon as a release event has been detected, it’s critical that we’re able to gather information on where it’s originating, where it’s headed, what the compound is and what the concentration levels might be. At SAFER Systems, we call this “emergency intelligence.” The right intelligence puts you in control of a situation — rather than allowing the situation to take control.

2. Where should sampling occur to avoid guessing?

To help us understand the nature of the toxic cloud, strategically positioned sensors within the impact zone can detect the leak and help us very quickly assess what is unfolding. A crew may be dispatched with handheld devices to take samples, investigate and validate what’s going on, whether it’s a harmless odor complaint or an actual release. At fixed facilities, hardwired sensors or wireless, GPS-enabled sensors for downwind and offsite monitoring can be used as well. With live data from gas and meteorological sensors, we can move away from static modeling to actual, real-time measuring of the plume.

3. How do we collect and share data from the scene?

Effective incident response includes gathering and disseminating critical information to affected workers, first responders, law enforcement and the community. Are there proper information gathering, communication and notification systems and protocols in place? When was the last time these were tested or exercised? You’ll want to ensure enough information is collected to support a thorough post-incident investigation and after action reports. The best practice is to track and archive data as the event is unfolding so you can later identify gaps in your response and identify areas for improvement.

4. What are the actual and expected airborne concentrations?

You should know the average dosage and peak concentrations of the plume, both outdoors and indoors. Each structure will also

have its own air change rates depending on its age, type of structure, nearby landscape, etc. With the right tools, this information can also help determine which buildings are safe for sheltering-in-place and which ones should be prioritized for evacuation.

5. How can the release rate be determined?

How big is the leak? How much material is still left in the tank or the process? Knowing the chemical release rate is the Achilles heel of every chemical emergency decision making process. It will drive incident consequence assessment, as well as determine the level of imminent risk and how long it could last.

6. Where will the event be in 30 minutes or an hour?

With any kind of release, we need to understand the expected duration of the impact on the workforce and the community. Which areas are likely to be impacted? When will the plume first arrive? How long it will last? The modelled path of the cloud can help with shelter-in-place vs evacuation instructions and offsite collections points. With live data from gas and weather sensors, we can stop “guesstimating” and start validating our observations and predictions in support of the required decisions.

7. Where can we safely deploy our assets?

Proper hazard zone definition also supports strategies and tactics. Accurate visualization of the hot zone and the area predicted to be affected over the next few hours can help improve planning and execution of vapour suppression, high heat exposure protection, and where to set up evacuation centres, command posts, and decontamination, triage and staging areas. With live data tracking the size, speed and direction of travel of the hazard, the answers become easier to discern.

8. Which roads should be closed and where can traffic be safely re-routed?

If the toxic cloud threatens to breach your fenceline, neighbour and community protection take on a higher priority. Safe roadblock positions, evacuation routes and traffic control in affected areas become critical. Understanding if and where drivers have slowed or are trapped in a potentially hazardous environment can help focus rescue efforts.

9. What areas need to be evacuated and what areas can shelter in place?

Should staff or the public stay where they are or is there enough time to move them to a safe location? When activating the offsite notification plan, how will you know the extent of the area to notify and recommend protective measures? Awareness of the plume footprint and predicted path will help determine the best recommendations. Particulate monitors, air quality sensors and satellite feeds for severe storm and lightning detection and near real-time hotspot detection tied in with responder and vehicle tracking can further improve situational awareness and decision support.

10. What will be the impact of wind shifts and complex terrain?

How will the path of the cloud be affected by changes in wind direction, speed and stability, and local terrain features? Will a wind shift change the course of the cloud or will the local hills and valleys “steer” it and affect those that were not originally in the downwind corridor?

Of course, there are a multitude of other questions you should be and will be asking during an event.

SAFER Systems works with you to create and deploy a browser-based emergency management decision support solution designed with your hazards and information requirements in mind. With an intuitive, customizable interface, integrated high-resolution maps, live gas, weather, lighting, and traffic data, and event sharing tools, our customers are uniquely positioned to answer these and many more questions, make smarter decisions faster and collaborate with stakeholders, in real-time, from anywhere.

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