Residents in a small town in east central Illinois spent part of their Labor Day weekend under a hazmat evacuation order.
WCIA reported that water treatment plant officials notified the fire department late Sunday afternoon that they had a chemical leak. The fire department got on scene and identified the material as chlorine.
Westville has a population of about 3,000 and its volunteer fire department requested aid from several neighboring departments as well as the Danville hazmat team. The leak was significant enough to initiate an evacuation or order those to shelter in place if they refused to leave.
“There was a vapor cloud that was extending into the community based on the rain and the leak. Based on what the wind was doing, it was taking it south into the community and across Route 1. So we isolated those areas. It would be an inhalation issue,” Westville’s Assistant Fire Chief Mark Ames told WCIA.
Also Read: Lessons from 2 Water Plant Hazmat Incidents
There were no reported injuries and it was not reported how much chlorine escaped or how long it took to contain the leak.
Here are four takeaways from chlorine-leak incidents.
Get help coming fast. It is important that dispatch and local fire officers understand that getting a hazmat team mobilized, on scene and to work takes time. The quicker a team is dispatched, the quicker it can get to work mitigating the incident. Here, additional resources were used for evacuation and traffic control.
Plan for an extended operation. Even small leaks can turn into longer events if access is difficult or there are mechanical issues, such as with this story or this one. Prepare for rehabbing and decontaminating team members. You also may need enough personnel to swap crews while one rehabs. Keep crews protected from extreme hot or cold weather could also be in play. Protecting crews and civilians also means keeping an eye on the weather.
Inform the people. Unless the incident is in the middle of nowhere, one of the first critical decisions will be whether or not to evacuate or have residents shelter in place. In Bedford, responders used Reverse 911 and canvasing to evacuate residents. In 2020 when Hurricane Laura triggered a refinery fire in Westlake, La. that released and spread chlorine, state officials ordered shelter in place. Whichever decision is made, clear, repeated and accurate communication with the affected public is important. Direct communication, traditional media outlets and social media outlets are some obvious channels. It is important that what is being communicated can be understood, is repeated often and is delivered in short, digestible bites. The CDC has an easy-to-understand fact sheet that departments can pass out to the public. Watch the Bedford fire chief clear up evacuation questions with a reporter in his news conference.
Protect critical infrastructure. Here, the water supply wasn’t threatened — but we must plan as if it were. In these incidents, the sites were in operation. Assuming the operators are responsible and well-intended, working with them during such a leak should be pretty smooth. As with mutual-aid partners, any work that can be done with these officials and at these sites will pay huge dividends when an emergency strikes. Some sites will be abandoned. There, the hazmat team is likely going to have to work without the benefit of accurate, historical information on the products and processes, or without additional resources from the host company.
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