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Winter Journal

Volume 31, Issue 4

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It has been a routine weekday afternoon with the usual array of medical first responder runs and a vehicle accident. The pre-alert tone sends the career crew scrambling for the engine, while the volunteer firefighters head for the station to staff the other engines, ladder and rescue. A box alarm has been struck for a report of smoke in a large semi-conductor manufacturing plant.

The first arriving engine heads up the driveway and is confronted not with a raging inferno, but with hundreds of employees milling about in front of the guardhouse. Of course, this is the assigned position for the first due engine and negotiating through the masses of employees happily enjoying their break from work requires skill and patience. They finally arrive at the guardhouse and find it empty. Attempts to identify someone in authority is difficult but eventually someone tells you there is smoke in a wafer lab but refuses to tell you where that is because they don't want you messing up their 'clean room' with your dirty fire gear.

If you think this is a pretty poor way to do business, you are right. Scenarios similar to this have happened to us and occur every day in the world of emergency response.

Let's look at another common nighttime response to a local industry. This call is for a fire in a metal plating plant utilizing large quantities of hazardous materials. The sprinkler system has activated, keeping the fire involving plastic tubs of chemicals and flexible tubing from spreading but it is mixing unknown chemicals together and turning the water runoff into an unusual but very pretty array of colors. When the volunteer deputy chief arrives, the MSDS book and hazardous materials plan that is required to be kept in the lock box is yellow and faded. It is seriously out of date. The pre-incident plan for the plant provides the standard information, but the mixing of the chemicals by the sprinkler complicates the incident somewhat. The most important person needed at the command post is not the most experienced fire officer. It is the plant chemical engineer who is a block away pleading with an overly efficient fire police person who takes his assignment to keep everyone away very seriously. Have you ever been on a call like that?

Responses to residential occupancies are our bread and butter in the fire service. They are by far the most common structural fire response and as a result we are usually very proficient in handling fires in these buildings. Emergencies in industrial occupancies are much less common. Many of these buildings are very large and complex. Some have an air of mystery to them, especially those involving large quantities of chemicals in a variety of tanks, pipes and vessels. Hopefully, inspections and preplans occur, but in predominately volunteer departments, it is not uncommon to have members who have never had an opportunity to be inside some of these complexes until an emergency occurs. In fact, the only contact many of the persons responsible for safety in the industrial occupancies ever have with the fire department is with the local fire marshal. Most safety directors would prefer to minimize their interaction with fire marshals because they rarely are on an industrial site except to enforce the fire code or in response to a complaint. In fact, some safety directors have had nothing but adversarial interactions with fire marshals and have come to dread their visits. This may surprise some fire marshals who view themselves as one of the 'good guys'. Some other safety directors grudgingly comply with violation notices until the fire marshal is out of sight, and then do what they are most comfortable with. But what our department discovered was that the majority of safety directors were isolated individuals, who had no idea that other people in neighboring industrial buildings shared their struggles to create and maintain a safe workplace. Many had a great desire for educational information and many sought a more positive working relationship with local fire authorities.

The private sector has a strong interest in the resolution of emergencies, both internal and external to their business site. However, their focus is on the bottom line. The length of time that they are out of production will directly impact the profit margin. This doesn't mean that they are not concerned with the life safety issues - most are. But when streets are blocked off, deliveries are delayed and employees can't get to work or worse if an incident becomes a long-term event, this can be costly.

As a result of some problems with responses to industrial incidents and recognizing that industrial safety directors had an equal interest in improving interaction, the idea of forming a partnership for safety was generated between emergency services in the township and the business community.

The safety, environmental and security directors of Upper Moreland Township's (Upper Moreland Township is a suburban municipality near Philadelphia, PA) largest and/or most hazardous employers were invited to join a 'Government-Business Partnership for Safety'. Representing the public sector was the fire marshal's office, career firefighters (who perform inspections) and the volunteer fire chief officers. Police command staff also joined the group.

The initial meeting consisted of an informal business card exchange and general discussion of the goals of the new organization.

We made it immediately clear that, from the public sector perspective, this new group would signify a change in our relationship with the business community. Instead of approaching potential safety hazards from an enforcement stance, we are now facilitating an exchange of ideas and solutions to a wide array of potential hazards. We emphasized that it was our desire to be better prepared to prevent or successfully resolve critical incidents in these large, complicated occupancies.

How would we accomplish these objectives? Going back to the examples presented at the beginning of this article, we addressed some of the more critical topics as a group.

First, we issued photo identification cards to key personnel, signed by the Chief of Police and the Director of Emergency Services, giving key people immediate command post access to incidents in their buildings. Next, we developed a standard identification vest for immediate recognition of key on-site personnel. No longer would our responders have to try to figure out who had authority, they would be wearing a standard vest.

All the major buildings have now been marked on both the inside and outside of their exit doors with numbers corresponding to our standard preplan side designation system, giving sector officers a standard frame of reference.

A subcommittee has developed an 'Emergency Response Guidebook' to be located in a standard place in each occupancy. Every binder is the same for site plans, hazardous materials plans, notification lists, MSDSs, etc.

After only two meetings, a half-day seminar was organized and conducted, including subjects in business interruption planning, hazardous waste regulations and an informational session on continuing education in environmental safety conducted by Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

The organization continues to expand both in membership and content. Public and private sector representatives from neighboring Horsham Township have joined the group, as well as representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and local Police.

Accordingly, the group has changed its name to reflect this expansion, now called the Upper Moreland/Horsham Regional Safety Council. George Fida, the Horsham Township Fire Marshal, has been instrumental in bringing many new members from major industries into the Council.

Fida has also arranged numerous educational briefings, conducted by knowledgeable members of the group.

Fire departments who keep their doors closed and whose interaction with the business community is limited to emergency responses and inspections are missing out on opportunities to improve relationships, increase their base of knowledge of the community's hazards and enhance the services we provide. Further, there are political benefits to developing positive relationships with the business community that should not be overlooked. With familiarity, we increase the confidence and confidence level of both responders and the business community. We believe that to successfully resolve some complex incidents, we need a complimentary relationship, rather than an adversarial one.

The formation of this partnership has been a very positive experience for all of those involved. The bi-monthly meetings will rotate to the various industrial complexes, giving each safety director a chance to show off their program and allowing the visiting members of the group to leave with new ideas. The only cost for the host is coffee, donuts and a little time.
Perhaps the most important benefit of this group is that when public safety officials arrive at an industrial complex for an emergency, we are met by people whose faces and first names we know and whose capabilities we trust. We are confident our industrial counterparts feel the same way. This relationship clearly serves the interest of the community, as well as the individual businesses we serve.

Thomas Sullivan is the Director of Emergency Services/Chief Fire Officer of Upper Moreland Township, Pennsylvania. He holds professional certifications as a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFPS), Certified Emergency Manager (CEM), and a Certified Fire Investigator (CFI). An adjuct faculty member at the Montgomery County Community College, he also served as Fire Chief in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania for five years.