Planning for a Chemical Emergency

Title III of SARA authorizes the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act; it requires local governments to prepare chemical emergency-response plans and review them annually. It’s the responsibility of responders to become familiar with the law and to use it to protect the public.

In December 1984, a gas that’s used in the production of insecticide was accidentally and unknowingly released upon the public. There were no warnings, no sirens, no bells and no notification to the public. This release caused the death of thousands and injured hundreds of thousands.

While this event happened over 30 years ago in another country, it was enough for the American federal government to pass legislation to protect its residents. The legislation: Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA).

Title III of SARA authorizes the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). As first responders, this is critical need-to-know information. This law is designed to help local communities protect public health, safety and the environment from chemical hazards.

This law requires local governments to prepare chemical emergency-response plans and to review plans at least annually. Facilities that manufacture, process or store designated hazardous chemicals must make safety data sheets (SDS) available to state and local officials and local fire departments.

There have been many chemical releases since the enacting of EPCRA and the law itself doesn’t protect the public. It’s the responsibility of responders to become familiar with the law and to use it to protect the public.

Identify High-Hazard Facilities in Your Jurisdiction

The first step is to identify who the information-holding agencies are and where they’re located. Your best start is with the State Emergency Response Commission, which Congress requires be formed. Each then divides its state into emergency planning districts called Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs). The LEPC is found at the county or local level and is your best resource for submitted, preplanning information.

The LEPC requires information be submitted on a Tier II form (PDF). A Tier II will have owner, emergency-contact and hazardous-chemical information, including maximum amounts, along with other generic chemical and storage information.

In Michigan, those required to submit Tier II forms do so electronically through a program sponsored by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). All Tier II forms must be submitted before March 1, reporting information and amounts from the previous calendar year.

The amounts reflected on the form show the maximum amount reported on site during the previous calendar year—a worst-case scenario for first responders. If the information changes (increases or decreases), the submitter must notify the LEPC within 30 days.

The Tier II only reflects hazardous chemicals in excess of 10,000 pounds. If the product is identified as an extremely hazardous substance, the minimum reportable quantity is 500 pounds. This is why a site visit is so important. It allows you to identify specific hazards the user may not have recognized.

Once again, the law requires these facilities to work with local fire departments. Their failure to comply may result in enforcement from OSHA, DEQ and the EPA (state and federal levels).

Request the Information

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act (MI-OSHA): Section 14I of Public Act 154, amended in 1994, creates specific requirements to ensure firefighter safety. Under the act, the fire chief must:

  • Prepare a plan for executing the department’s responsibilities for each site in its jurisdiction that produces or uses hazardous chemicals, regardless of the quantity of chemicals.
  • Communicate the plan to each firefighter.

Some locales require documentation be submitted in a specific format and by a certain time. In Michigan, businesses have by law 10 days to submit a hazmat inventory statement (HMIS); a five-day extension can be granted. Those who take longer may be referred to MI-OSHA or M-DEQ for further enforcement.

To accomplish this goal, our department has developed an Excel document, commonly called an HMIS. The business can submit an HMIS electronically to our department. It contains a table of minimum reportable amounts, as required by our department, for each of the nine DOT hazard classes. It identifies the nine DOT hazard classifications and provides an emergency contact form.

In addition, businesses are encouraged to report hazardous materials at any amount they deem significant. The form also contains contact information, construction classification, use group and total building square footage.

The document is based on who needs to review the information:

  • Responders:
    • What is it?
    • Where is it?
  • Incident commanders:
    • What is it?
    • Where is it?
    • How much is here?
    • What are the hazards?
  • Hazmat team:
    • What is it?
    • Where is it?
    • How much is here?
    • What are the hazards?
    • Plus specific research information (e.g.: chemical name, C.A.S. Number, etc.)

Other required submitted information includes:

  • An electronic site plan
  • An electronic floor plan, indicating chemical locations with points of ingress and egress
  • A separate emergency contact list (included on the HMIS)

Review the Information

This is where preplanning becomes valuable to the responder. The products need to be researched to ensure that all products have the proper protection and safety systems applied. Remember, your local code is the minimum for fire and life safety protection of your community. You are looking to have a plan in place just in case “… the genie escapes from the bottle.”

This is where you involve your other planning officials: building department, planning department, zoning department or committees for your jurisdiction. They may have additional input or enforcement authority to help gain compliance. They may also have access to needed records.

Our department does not require the submittal of SDS documentation. Storing the documentation for 5,500+ businesses is a daunting task, at best. Instead, we ask the business to make the information available to us for research, planning, or in the event of an emergency.

Meet with Occupants and Owners

Once you review the submittal, contact the submitter and schedule a site visit. Take a copy of the documentation you received and indicate items of interest to the fire department, such as fire suppression and alarm systems, access points, utility shut off, control valves and staging areas.

If you’re not the code-enforcing official, focus on fire department access and activities. What would you do if this product is released? How would you control it? What does the business recommend? Remember, they use this product every day. They don’t want to see you either (except for friendly visits like this one). Your goals include:

  • Keeping them in business, not shutting them down.
  • Educating responders to the hazards, for their own safety.

Distribute the Plan

Now that the plan is final, it needs to be shared with your responders. There are many avenues for accomplishing this task. Some departments share electronically, while others may carry paper documents. Whatever the method, don’t forget to include your hazmat teams and your mutual-aid companies. After all, you may be committed to another incident when they need to assist you.

Most public information is made available to the community through Freedom of Information Act requests. While the community has a right to know what hazards exist in their neighborhoods, specific information in your HMIS may not be allowed for release. This specific information may be withheld due to proprietary processes of the business. Check with your local clerk’s office or other authority about the release of this information.

If Required, Issue a Permit

Your local code may require a permit be issued by the AHJ to manufacture, use or store hazardous materials. Whether it’s the fire department, or other government agency, it is good to ensure that this process is followed.

Also, other departments or agencies may have expertise to ensure the safe operation of the business. Contacting them and inquiring if they have any planning or site information that might be shared with your department would be beneficial. In the event of an emergency, knowledge is power.

File for Future Review

Once the plan has been developed and approved, file a copy for regular review. Be sure to check with the governing authorities to determine how long you can go before returning to the site. Some sites may require an annual visit, while others may be allowed to go longer between visits. You don’t want to appear intrusive, but you do want to stay abreast of the processes and practices, just in case.

Preplanning is your best tool to keep all responders, and your community, safe and enjoyable. It’s the responsibility of all responders to be prepared. Our communities depend on us.

You may have difficulty persuading your elected officials, businesses or your department why preplanning is so critical to their businesses and community and to the emergency responders. Take a few minutes to view and share a video. It was developed by the Chemical Safety Board, and it most accurately describes why you need to plan. On CSB’s video page, search for “emergency preparedness.” The video is about 20 minutes long and very well worth your time.

Let’s all plan to stay safe!

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