Rural Communities: Know Where Hidden Hazards Reside

While rural communities can be picturesque and have much to offer those who choose to live and work there, many fire and hazmat risks exist, both hidden below ground and out in plain sight. This is why it is so important for local fire departments to fully understand those risks and where they are typically found, and how to seek training and assistance before a call to action.

“Intelligence is key to winning a battle,” says Joe Kratochvil, IAFC subject matter expert.

“For emergency response agencies, the best way to protect and serve their communities is gaining that intelligence prior to an incident. They should plan by knowing what the hazards are, where they are located, what resources are available and what resources will be needed, and whether the community can handle the incident.”
Preparing for Pipeline & Rail Emergencies

ince 2013, TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) has been proud to partner with the IAFC to support the first esponders who help keep communities safe. As part of this partnership, a 
four-year grant from TC Energy was dedicated to the development of  the Pipeline Training and Regional Rail Response Program, which trains emergency responders in pipeline  and rail emergency response and preparedness.

Pipeline incident response can be considered unique when compared  to other types of hazardous materials response — there is generally a larger scale and scope of incident, the quantity of materials being dealt with is greater, and the high pressure of the lines used to transfer material has the potential to displace air in confined spaces. Because of this, local fire departments need to plan and train extensively for these kinds of emergency responses, know the hazards related to the material going through and become familiar with the pipeline companies who operate in their jurisdictions.

Since its creation, the collaboration between TC Energy and IAFC has made it possible to reach 1.2 million emergency responders through a series of regional town halls across the United States, where IAFC, TC Energy, industry representatives and local emergency responders all gathered in order to exchange ideas on emergency preparedness in the extremely rare occurrence of a pipeline incident.  

This partnership also was responsible for the creation of the National Association of State Fire Marshals emergency responders’ online training portal, which ensures emergency responders have access to pipeline incident training 24-7. This portal can be found at http://pipelines.training.

“We have had great positive feedback on this partnership, from both emergency services departments and first responders,” says Jeff Mackenzie, emergency management, major projects at TC Energy.

“Post training, these emergency personnel share with us a general consensus of just feeling better prepared for the rare occurrence of a pipeline incident.”

The IAFC and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recently held a Regional Rail Response training session in Alaska, where the IAFC selected a team of experts to provide six training sessions to more than 200 rural firefighters and rail employees. The instructors — each who had first-hand experience with rail emergencies — effectively emphasized why factors such as pre-planning, understanding roles and the need for 
a coordinated effort are paramount for successful rail emergency response. 

“This type of training is especially valuable in remote locations where local fire training budgets might not allow for it,” says Tom Covington, director of safety at Alaska Railroad Corporation. 

“Understanding capabilities, responsibilities and limitations ahead of time allows for both the emergency responder and the Alaska Railroad to develop tactics and strategies, not just for prevention but also for mitigation  in the event of a crisis occurring. The training provided by IAFC brought us all another step closer to a much-needed partnership.”

Another example was when the IAFC provided Des Moines County  (Iowa) the resources it needed to develop a pipeline annex to the Hazardous Materials section (Emergency Support Function, or ESF) of its County Emergency Operations Plan. Additionally, resources were provided to educate first responders on how to properly respond to pipeline emergencies, and participants were given the opportunity to take  part in review exercises and to go over those newly developed plans, policies and procedures to help identify any supplementary training needs. 

“The IAFC representatives and TC Energy officials made the process really simple by initially meeting with our local community firefighters, hazardous materials technicians and myself 
— as the emergency management coordinator — to discuss the kind of program they could offer us,” says Gina Hardin, emergency manager, Des Moines County, Iowa.

“This helped us to identify the gaps in our training, exercises and planning, and helped set the stage for the rest of the process.”

Because pipeline risks are out of sight, out of mind most of the time, working through the IAFC’s training process was considered a tremendously valuable experience for participants in Des Moines County.  

“If you get the opportunity to work with the IAFC to assist you with your planning, training and response efforts in regard to pipelines, take advantage of their offer,” says Hardin.

“They are very helpful, work within your schedule, and the resources that they bring to the table will make your jurisdiction better prepared for a pipeline emergency, should it happen.”

While this valuable training has traditionally been presented to mostly rural areas throughout the United States, based on the positive feedback it has received, the IAFC now offers  it to emergency service personnel in jurisdictions of all sizes and regions. 

The Importance of Everyone Being Prepared for Hidden Risks

“On a blue-sky day, a hidden risk that presents a potentially large hazard to  a community will likely catch everyone flat-footed and will become complicated quickly,” says David McGuire, director of public safety communications at the Ashland County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio.

“As time passes and faces change, you will need to ensure that everyone is aware of the hazards residing in their communities. If you know for certain that your emergency responders are ready,  great — but what about members of the public? For us public safety folks, it can be easy to assume that the people in your community are just as dialed-in on emergency preparedness as you are. But, sadly, many are not.”

Meeting and training regularly across disciplines is immensely helpful in building — and then maintaining — a high level of awareness between stakeholders. Fire, EMS, law enforcement, public works, local government officials, dispatch, NGOs and commercial partners should all be involved in planning discussions. It is also imperative that members  of the public are involved in these discussions. Local officials, plus business and community leaders, will often not realize exactly what first responders need to do in the case of an emergency, and exposing them to the difficult and dangerous work being done will help give them a clearer understanding and deeper appreciation of what it takes.

“Working with the IAFC on this issue really opened up our eyes  on how important collaboration 
is between all agencies and stakeholders,” says Brad Winter, fire chief at Seville-Guilford Township  (Ohio) Fire & EMS.

“After we went through the training course ourselves, the facilitators opened up the floor to anybody who had questions. This gave everyone the chance to interact with each other within a positive setting. Doing this really helped build relationships.”

Building relationships within the community can serve other purposes, too. Todd McNeal, fire chief at Twain Harte (California) Community Services District Fire Rescue Division, and member of the IAFC Wildland Fire Policy Committee, encourages fire chiefs to engage in active and ongoing dialogue with long-standing community organizations and local fire ecologists and historians about the history of wildfire in their regions. “Knowing the fire history of your region, the weather patterns that produce extreme fire behavior in your area and a complete picture of all the risks will help you begin to mitigate wildland fire risks,” he says.

Both large and small communities can be affected by wildfire, but for rural communities, the risk is significant since the fire can quickly overpower the limited initial attack resources, adds McNeal.

“Wildfire cares not for jurisdictional boundaries or fiscal year budgets and is becoming a larger and larger issue each year, particularly in areas without a significant history of wildland fire occurrence.” 

McNeal suggests rural fire departments arm themselves with automatic and mutual aid agreements with regional counterparts to help improve initial attack resources, attend industry conferences to learn about risks and strategies and take advantage of industry training.

While rural communities may face different hidden risks than their urban counterparts, there are many training options available — both in person and online. Get in touch with the IAFC, or visit www.iafc.org for details.

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