In the wake of some very serious industrial accidents around the world, many countries recognized the need for hazard-specific emergency preparedness and response. Processes and procedures were quickly mandated and implemented, gradually morphing into a standardized emergency response plan (ERP). Nuclear plants, oil and natural gas refineries, and chemical and fertilizer processing facilities, are examples of activities that require emergency response plans for unique hazards. Over the past 30 years, national standards, have been developed to provide consistent guidelines for emergency management that are applicable to most industries. Many government regulators also have strict rules for emergency preparedness and response, including minimum requirements for emergency response plans. So, what is the value for firefighters of an emergency response plan? In a worst-case scenario, a well-designed plan makes all the difference in the world.
There are many good reasons for companies to develop emergency response plans. Essentially, every plan should provide emergency personnel with enough information to facilitate a timely and effective response. However, too much information and detail can be just as bad as inadequate information. Although no two plans will be exactly the same, they should meet strategic objectives in terms of protecting people, property and the environment. Thus, each plan must address hazards and risks specific to the operation and the location.
Emergency response plans aim to provide responders with critical information about products and operational processes. For example, emergency response personnel will want to know how much product is stored within a vessel or pipeline and the physical properties of the product. Detailed information is vital and ultimately can determine whether the response is a success or failure. What is the quickest way to shut in a facility or stop the flow of product? How will the product disperse in standard atmospheric conditions? What are the best methods for containment and suppression? How many occupied buildings need to be evacuated? The ERP must provide responders with enough information to answer these typical questions.
The safety of response personnel also relies on accurate descriptions of the hazardous substances. Valuable time can be wasted trying to obtain information about the physiological effects of chemicals and their exposure limits. The explosion at a fertilizer plant in the community of West, Texas, in April is an example of what can go wrong when emergency personnel do not have the knowledge of how specific chemicals react with heat and pressure. Other hazards at an industrial site, such as confined or restrictive spaces, may require specialized equipment and training.
Arguably, the most valuable tool in the emergency response plan is a site map. A well-developed map shows the location of critical processing equipment, emergency supplies, control points, entry and exit paths, safe areas for staging, occupied buildings, gas-plume dispersion, and suitable points for roadblocks and traffic control. In some circumstances, the maps identify residences within a designated hazard area; this allows emergency personnel to assess which residences should be evacuated and how many people require immediate assistance. For example, in Western Canada many petroleum and natural-gas industry plans contain maps showing emergency planning zones (EPZ) for the hazards of hydrogen sulphide, or explosion hazards such as high volume pressure pipelines, fuel tanks and natural gas liquid storage. Emergency planning zones are predetermined based on the worst-case scenario. Also, an EPZ should not be confused with other zones, such as isolation or hot zones. The EPZ size varies with the type of hazard and generally is measured by its radius in metres. Once the circular area has been drawn on the map, it is easy to identify roads, properties and other values at risk. Simply stated, a well-drawn site map that provides a clear schematic with the necessary features saves valuable time.
The emergency response plan should focus on practicality. A plan is of little use just sitting on the shelf, collecting dust. As technology changes, so too must methods and procedures outlined in the ERP. When was the last time the plan was updated? Periodic testing of an emergency response plan is vital. Is information readily available to response personnel? Are the roles and responsibilities clearly written and understood? Clearly, an effective plan provides all the necessary answers.
Developing an ERP requires a lot of resources, and the industry spends a lot of time and money making sure emergency response plans meet regulatory standards. It is critical that responders refer to these plans in an industrial emergency. A well-organized and practical plan can bring structure to those moments of crises. So, stick to the plan – it could save your life.
Mike Burzek is the director of public protection and safety for the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. He has more than 20 years of experience in emergency response and public safety, including nine years as a paramedic. He lives in Dawson Creek, B.C., and can be reached at
Industrial Outlook: June 2013
Stick to the plan: the importance of ERPs
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