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Chemical Safety in Shared Communities: What Fire Chiefs Can Do

An explosion caused by leaking propylene at a manufacturing facility in Houston, Texas, last January revealed the challenges that fire chiefs face in cities with no zoning laws. With no zoning, residential communities share space with facilities that use and store hazardous chemicals. 

This fatal incident brought into focus three competing interests concerning chemical safety, namely: homeland security Chemicals of Interest (COI), hazmat inspections, and the fire department’s involvement in Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC).

Propylene is a COI listed on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards. Chemicals listed on this index are categorized based on three security issues:

  1. Release: toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals that can be released at a facility.
  2. Theft or Diversion: chemicals that, if stolen or diverted, can be converted into weapons using simple chemistry, equipment, or techniques.
  3. Sabotage: chemicals that can be mixed with readily available materials.

The chemicals also are regulated by the amount of screening threshold quantities that must be reported to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. In this case, propylene is categorized as a “Release” security risk in amounts that exceed 10,000 pounds, and therefore, any request by the public for open records would be, and in fact were, withheld in accordance with homeland security practices.

Turning to the facility itself, it was not considered a ’high hazard‘ occupancy by current inspection standards, which would require additional inspections and infrastructure. However, the explosion killed two people, injured eighteen, and caused damage to over 200 homes. These facts may prompt us to redefine what it means to be a high hazard to better monitor safety concerns in the community.

With no zoning laws in place to aid in chemical safety, what can a fire chief do under such circumstances? Here are four ideas proposed by a collaboration between city council members, the fire chief, and the LEPC chairwoman.

Strengthen the Community Right-to-Know (CRTK) laws by working with DHS to lower the threshold amounts on the COI list to balance the citizens’ right to request information about the chemicals in their neighborhood. Moreover, lobbying for a national standard for minimum disclosure would balance the interest between DHS and the vulnerable communities.

Consider adopting the 2015 International Fire Code to allow third-party inspectors to review exterior storage vessels and implement mandatory reporting. The cost of this service could be applied to the business sector with minimum impact and maybe in the best economic interest of surrounding businesses.

Increase the department’s Hazardous Material Response Teams through grant-funding to increase the government’s involvement in LEPCs. Recent reports from the Government Accountability Office confirmed that the fire department’s engagement in the LEPCs has a direct impact on the success of informing the community on chemical safety measures. The fire department can offer both staffing and funding to the volunteer-based LEPCs and enhance the communication and dissemination of information to the residents.

Advocate for local ordinances that expand on the CRTK laws that address chemical storage thresholds for both indoor and outdoor containers and better balance the rights of hazardous facilities and local citizens.

By no means are these options exhaustive and more research is needed to address this unique and timely problem. But considering cities with no zoning to protect against chemical incidents, balancing the interest between information for local communities and security for national defense places the fire department in a unique position to improve the relationships.


Bryan Sky-Eagle, JD, CFO, is a district chief with the Houston Fire Department with 20 years of experience. Sky-Eagle is also a practicing attorney with 15 years in labor and employment law. He also serves as a member of the IAFC’s Terrorism and Homeland Security (THS) Committee. You can connect with him on Twitter at @BSkyEagle. 

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