Time To Get Uncomfortable

I have been doing a little research lately and happened to re-read the theories of crew resource management and just leadership, as championed by Paul LeSage.  I wholeheartedly agree with these ideas, especially as I really do understand most errors or "accidents" occur not because of some conspiracy or intentional act, but because a number of factors happen to align and when they do, at that given moment, disaster (or near-disaster) occurs.

In understanding those theories, however, I still harbor serious concerns when individuals with the responsibility to protect the vulnerable underestimate risk and disaster comes calling.  There may not necessarily be overt disregard for risk, but that shouldn't be a comfort to those whose job it was to educate the public and plan for disaster.  In fact, I hope they stay awake every night realizing how badly they fail those who entrusted them.

So while the fingers started pointing the minute the dust cleared in West, Texas, I am afraid that the same people who will be held accountable will not necessarily be the ones who should actually be held accountable.  I have no doubt there will be frank discussion and hurt feelings, but let's not let the buck stop at the fire department or the fire chief. 

I don't know the story of how this all went about over the years in West but I can make some pretty tangible observations.  There are federal laws that compel companies to disclose the presence of hazardous materials in the community.  These laws and regulations have been around since the 1980's. Anyone who says they are unaware of them, especially in the chemical storage and manufacturing industry, is, to be blunt, full of shit.  Anyone at the command level in the emergency response community who says they don't know about these laws and regulations, is similarly, full of shit, or has no business being in that position of responsibility.  So to begin with, nobody should be pleading ignorance of the law, not that anyone is.

Likewise, if you are an elected official in a community with this kind of industry, if you have not been educated on the laws, then your fire chief hasn't been doing his or her job.  If you have not had a budget sent before you to account for the planning, training, equipping, staffing, and enforcement of dealing with this type of hazard, your fire chief has not been doing his or her job.  And on top of that, if you have industry like this in your community and you don't have a local emergency preparedness committee, your fire chief hasn't been doing his or her job.  And again, I don't know this to be the case here, but it is simply something to consider.

The fire chief, however, is likely not culpable because I would bet that in most cases, the fire chief HAS done these things. Given the nature of things, I would bet they HAVE tried to educate their governing body; they HAVE tried to budget for these situations; and they HAVE tried to form and work with an LEPC.  But what I hear often is that the city fathers, the business people, and other interested parties shout down the increase in taxes to support these mandates.  They fail to approve the budgets to support planning and preparedness.  They don't support inspections of premises, they don't encourage planning, they resist any efforts of enforcement, and they complain about the "heavy hand" of government regulation.  And if you are a fire chief walking in with some doomsday scenario of a fertilizer explosion blowing up half the town, you are called Chicken Little and told to stop making mountains out of molehills.

Then something goes wrong and everyone wants to hang someone.

If you have hazards in your community and don't plan for them, expect that when those hazards become real problems, someone is going to be pointing a finger right at you and your organization.  Never mind that when you brought the subject up you were not allocated the necessary resources, if you have a forest fire that damages homes you will be the fall guy. If you have a chemical leak, you will be the scapegoat.  And if something explodes in your jurisdiction, be sure someone will be asking for all your plans, your training records, your inspections, and anything else, looking to hang this one on you.

Anyone in the business of emergency response should be uncomfortable right now.  It is clear and incontrovertible fact that in so many communities, we have a known risk and a convenient collective ignorance rolling all the way from the fire department to the taxpayers.  In this age of cut and slash budgeting by municipal governments, I hear a lot of big talk about how preparing for certain risks is just not cost efficient or wise.  But when that bird comes back to roost, it's a little too late to be pinning that blame on the people who informed you of the risk and asked for resources to manage it, yet were denied because the odds of such an event might have seemed astronomical. 

Who then is going to swing because something went wrong?  Let's just be real about it once and for all.  Let's just say what it is out loud.  When we know a hazard exists, it is our duty to plan for how we are going to handle it.  If I take a budget to adequately prepare for a probable event in my jurisdiction and I am given no resources to do the job, the plan may be something as short and sweet as "run", but we had better have that plan in the books.  Furthermore, if that is indeed, the plan, it is incumbent upon us as leaders and planners to educate the affected parties of the situation: we identified the risk, we asked for the resources to adequately plan, we were not given the resources, and the result is that there is unmitigated risk.  In light of this, when there is a fire in the suspect facility, we are going to order you all to the fallout shelter and ask you to stay down until the debris stops falling.

I am not an attorney, but I know this much. When we have a duty to act and a breach of that duty occurs, and that breach of duty results in an event, and that event causes injury, that adds up to negligence.  We may not be able to handle everything that comes our way, but we need to have a plan for what we are going to do, regardless, and make sure everyone knows what the plan is.  If we communicate that effectively, we have done our job.  But if we do that and the community assumes the risk to be negligible, then we have at least done our duty and can go to sleep a little better, knowing that at least we tried to do what we were expected to do. 


  • Craig Simons says:

    This is a truly well written article. I have to say, though the
    standards should be pretty much the same state to state I will bet that
    depending on the type of chemical, and the amount stored at any type of a
    facility in this country is off the grid to the people who serve the
    public because of terrorism intentions or possible attacks that may
    occur if these chemicals were to fall into the wrong hands. Basically
    the companies are under law, and sending the proper notifications to
    states they do business in, but there not advertising. As being a past
    Fire Chief in my community I know how hard it can be to get your hands
    on MSDS sheets, especially if a facility carries a lot of different
    chemicals. Most look at it as a inconvenience to photo copy all those
    papers and hand them over to the local fire department. Honestly, how
    far can they push to say the fire department, or the Fire Chief is at
    fault? The West Fire Dept. might of had all the necessary paperwork for
    chemicals stored at this facility, but a department must also be
    pro-active in training and truly understanding the enemy. Bottom line is West, TX is small town USA and they worked that fire with what they had because they have a small population, little tax base, not enough volunteers and not enough technical equipment to get the job done. In closing, I would love to know after all the finger pointing is done, who knew what at the time? and who was hiding information when it came down to proper documentation? Thanks!

    • Mick Mayers says:

      I appreciate the comments; I’m betting that they had the info but were handcuffed like many other fire chiefs are by a lack of support from the political leaders. Again, it’s likely one of those situations where nobody meant any harm or never thought something this catastrophic could happen. But one only has to look to the nearby Gulf and the Texas City disaster as a lesson for how bad it can get. I would rather we learn from it than settle on someone to beat down, but the reality is that hazardous businesses settle in small towns for more reasons than they are nice places to live. Often codes are less stringent, enforcement is a struggle and the resources to do anything about it not available.

      • Craig Simons says:

        I agree with you 100 percent, especially on the last part of your comment when it comes to codes and less enforcement. Keep up the good writing. Your site is always an enjoyable read.

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