Industrial Superiority: Establish Command, Establish Dominance

Effective command structures are the foundation of what shapes a successful emergency.  The NIMS standards have been a staple in our services for years now, and there is no exception for its lack of use in the industrial profession.  While a few minor differences are present, our initial set up of the structure has the potential for less confusion with the help of a little pre planning on our part as industrial safety professionals.  While large scale municipal incidents have the potential for great command set ups as time goes on into the event, industrial facilities have a few legs up on their responder counter parts. Available personnel, the ability for precise pre planning, and response time.

Industrial sites are protected in a variety of different ways. From traditional staffed engines, to large fire brigades, one thing that the industrial world has that most don’t, is the ability to put a lot of manpower on site at one time.  Because of this, the initial incident command set up can go one of two ways. Smooth and with alacrity, or the biggest cluster of hurt feelings you can imagine. While more manpower is what most fire companies dream of, imagine the sheer chaos of descending onto an emergency less than one minute away with 50 – 60 people. 

An easy way to alleviate some of the burden on incoming responders is a pre-set incident command structure. Now, this is not a new concept for many departments. You have officers who know their roles, and those above them who know their place when they arrive on scene, However, for industrial facilities, let’s take a step back and remove the guesswork all together of who is in charge of what.  When normal operations are happening inside of a facility we all have our roles or job. Some of us strictly emergency response, and some of us other crafts like instrumentation, operations, or other maintenance work. While initial engine crews are often in place, these other roles can quickly switch to an emergency response position once an emergency is declared.

For instance, if we have employees who are maintenance based day to day, once an emergency is declared, have their dual role as something in the IC structure.  Whether it be logistics, safety, or incident commander; pre designating these positions can help organize the chaos of a developing situation. 

Another important aspect of establishing dominance on the industrial playing field is knowing when to call in the cavalry, and when to handle it yourself.  Many contract companies are available for the usage for industrial fires, spills and other issues. These companies can come with a hefty price tag, however as we’ve seen in recent events around the US, the reward of controlling a large incident early may far outweigh the price tag we incur.  Know your local OSRO’s and response companies.

While municipal fire departments may be more readily available to respond to your incident, how equipped or knowledgeable are they to assist you in the fight? Municipal responders are trained to have basic understandings of fighting many types of different fires, but may not be the most proficient at helping you tactically with your facility.  Just as you would rely on their expertise for structural firefighting within your facility, lean more on industrial experts for yours. Even if your decision is up in the air about how you want to mitigate your emergency, make the notifications. It’s better to cancel enroute than to call too late. 

Another trick to gaining the upper hand during an industrial firefight is the acceptance and knowledge of new firefighting technologies.  The world of fire fighting peripherals is an ever changing industry. From robotics, to new types of cameras the use of these items can help – or possibly hurt us.

When using new types of tech in the industrial world, ensure that users are versed and trained in the capabilities, and limitations of these items.  Let’s take thermal imagine for instance. With the availability of different types of thermal imaging devices on the market, it has become more than a luxury in the fire service, and more of a “Go-to” tool. However just how effective can thermal imaging be in the industrial world? We have our uses that initially come to mind, like checking what equipment is hot, or may be absorbing too much heat from nearby flame impingement, but lets consider more tactical uses.  One of my initial uses for thermal imaging is that of critical exposure identification.

Yes, we are able identify what exposures may be under the most duress fairly quickly by seeing where heat is being absorbed; but lets take it a step further. Using a thermal imaging device, take it and point it at a nearby vessel. Notice the temperature change from the bottom, to the top? These tools can help us identify vessels with liquid levels inside of them just by a quick scan.  This is important because we can now prioritize exposures by being able to identify which pose more of a risk to BLEVE and which do not.  

With industrial firefighting I am a firm believer in the fact that HAZMAT plays an even bigger role in this field.  Your crew is much more than a fire fighting machine, they are a hazardous material response team, be it on fire or not.  The threat of having chemical emergencies outside of industrial sites is present, that’s not something that will go away, but having all the chemicals, catalysts and reactions going on in one property makes for HAZMAT knowledge a must for crews. 

This goes beyond ERG’s and placards for us. Just as an engine hand grabs a halligan or hook, we need to be strapping gas meters and detectors to our sides and being able to ACCURATELY read them. This can not be stressed enough for the modern industrial facility. This may break a few hearts, but it needs to be said; that a lot of street level firefighters do not know how to accurately interpret readings from gas detectors.  The place of meter interpretation in firefighting is rising quickly.

Just as 20 years ago we brought our first TIC’s online and thought it was a novelty we may or may not use – now we have them built into every single airpack due to its strong foothold in the industry. Mark my words, gas metering is the next thermal imaging trend. 

Industrial crews need to be elite, and well trained to make sure their emergencies do not spread to outside communities.  We may not always be motivated to protect a private investors property but we can all agree that the offsite impact is something that we need to prevent the further spread of.  As we have seen recently in Southeast Texas an emergency can quickly go from contained, to blowing out the windows of homes and schools for miles within seconds. Train a dominant response team.