Published on May 2, 2014.

In this column:

The fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer facility in Texas last year should never have occurred and resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to prevent the disaster.

That was the message from Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), in April as he announced the preliminary findings of the CSB investigation into the fire and explosion that occurred on April 17, 2013, leveling a fertilizer storage facility and decimating portions of the small town of West. The explosion killed 14 people, injured some 200, and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures, including nearby schools.

At the news conference, held in Dallas, Moure-Eraso also attributed the disaster to “the inability of federal, state, and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.” The CSB offered no details on the cause of the initial fire or the contributing factors that produced the devastating explosion.

Rafael MoureEraso

CSB Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso in West, Texas, in April.

Photograph: AP/Wide World

The announcement came as NFPA is conducting a review of the chapter in NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code, devoted to the storage, handling, and emergency response considerations related to ammonium nitrate.

As NFPA Journal previously reported [“Hard Lessons,” March/April], part of the problem with regulating facilities that store fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate, which can detonate in certain conditions when it interacts with fire, is that some states, Texas included, do not have statewide fire codes with guidelines on how to properly store such chemicals. The CSB investigation also found that some counties under a certain population are prohibited by law from having such regulations. “Local authorities and specifically local fire departments need fire codes so they can hold industrial operators accountable for safe storage and handling of chemicals,” said Moure-Eraso.

At the West Fertilizer facility, roughly 60 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored in wooden bins in an unsprinklered wooden building. Those combustible materials contributed to the growth of the fire, eventually resulting in the detonation of the stored ammonium nitrate. The CSB says storing ammonium nitrate in wooden buildings is the norm in the United States.

The CSB investigation found a failure “at all levels of government” across the country to adopt codes to keep hazardous facilities away from populated areas. The investigation found 1,351 facilities across the country that store ammonium nitrate. “Farm communities are just starting to collect data on how close homes or schools are to ammonium nitrate storage,” said Johnnie Banks, a CSB supervisory investigator, “but there can be little doubt that West is not alone and that other communities should act to determine what hazards might exist in proximity.”

Emergency responder angle
The CSB’s investigation determined that lessons learned during emergency responses to incidents involving ammonium nitrate—incidents where firefighters perished—have not been effectively disseminated to firefighters and emergency responders in other communities where ammonium nitrate is stored and utilized. The CSB found that West volunteer firefighters were not aware of the explosion hazard from the ammonium nitrate stored at West Fertilizer and were “caught in harm’s way when the blast occurred.”

Ten volunteer firefighters and two civilian helpers were among the fatalities when the stored ammonium nitrate detonated, creating a blast so powerful that it was heard 80 miles away and registered a magnitude 2.1 tremor that was recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The CSB’s Banks acknowledged the various sources of guidance for responders at fires involving ammonium nitrate, noting that the information can sometimes be vague or conflicting. “All of these provisions should be reviewed and harmonized in light of the West disaster to ensure that firefighters are adequately protected and are not put into danger protecting property alone,” Banks said.

NFPA resources for preparing emergency responders for incidents involving hazardous materials include NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, which helps departments develop response tactics for high-risk occupancies, as well as risk-management plans. NFPA 472, Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents, addresses the knowledge and training necessary to respond to hazardous materials incidents. NFPA 1620, Pre-Incident Planning, helps evaluate the current conditions at a high-risk facility.

Bigger-picture safety issues are being addressed by the Ammonium Nitrate Task Group, formed last year to develop new language for chemical storage safety in the 2016 edition of NFPA 400, including new provisions to address chemical storage safety in existing facilities like the one in West, Texas. In addition to best practices for responders, the task group is addressing sprinkler requirements and construction materials for facilities that store ammonium nitrate; maximum allowable stored quantities that, once exceeded, require additional protection; and the properties of ammonium nitrate, along with the conditions that adversely impact its stability and can lead to possible detonation. The ammonium nitrate discussions will be a primary focus of the Technical Committee on Hazardous Chemicals, the body that oversees NFPA 400, at its second draft committee meeting in August.

Guy Colonna, manager of the Industrial & Chemical Engineering Division at NFPA, said that while the CSB announcement raised important issues, a number of key questions remain unanswered about what happened at West Fertilizer, and how. “Going forward, it’s important for the CSB to differentiate the uniqueness of this event—the storage conditions, the fire, the factors that led to an explosion of this magnitude,” Colonna said. “All of that information can influence the kinds of decisions we make as part of our code development process. For example, if there was some kind of contaminant mixing with the stored ammonium nitrate, we’d want to know that and do the appropriate testing. That way we know we’re addressing these problems with all the information we need.”

For more information on NFPA 400, visit nfpa.org/400.


 

The ABCs of IBC Risk
A new campaign hopes to educate users of intermediate bulk containers on the hazards of storing combustible and flammable liquids. By Kathleen Robinson

NFPA and the Fire Protection Research Foundation have launched “Contain IBC Fire Risk,” a campaign designed to educate users of intermediate bulk containers, or IBCs, on the dangers of stored flammable liquids and to encourage compliance with NFPA 30, Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code.

IBCs are made of metal, plastic, or composite materials and are popular for shipping and storing large quantities of combustible and flammable liquids. While their transportation is strictly regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, their storage is not. Nor do the containers have to be fire tested.

IBCs

When IBCs fail, they can release a large pool of fluid that, when ignited, can produce enough heat to overtax fire sprinkler systems.

Photograph: Shutterstock

This lack of regulation can pose significant fire safety problems. When IBCs that have not been inspected or certified to provide fire endurance fail, they can release a large pool of fluid that, when ignited, can produce enough heat to overtax fire sprinkler systems faster than firefighters can respond to a fire call. In addition, composite IBCs may themselves ignite.

“Where improperly stored, IBCs containing combustible and flammable liquids potentially create an unrecognized hazard for dangerous pool fires,” says Christian Dubay, NFPA vice-president and chief engineer. Those pool fires can destroy the buildings where IBCs are stored and threaten adjacent properties. “Proper storage in compliance with NFPA 30 ensures that these potential hazards are properly addressed,” says Dubay.

Despite the risks, those responsible for storing commodities are often unaware of the dangers posed by IBCs containing combustible or flammable liquids. “The Foundation’s Property Insurance Research Group believes that greater awareness of the risk, along with the protection strategies in NFPA 30, will go a long way toward reducing this hazard,” says Kathleen Almand, vice-president of NFPA’s Research Division.

The new campaign was created with support from the insurance industry and other stakeholders, Almand says.

NFPA 30 only permits the storage of liquids with a closed cup flashpoint of 100oF (38oC) or greater in metal, rigid plastic, and composite IBCs. Rigid plastic and composite IBCs must be listed and labeled.

Unlisted composite IBCs cannot be used to store combustible or flammable liquids because they are not inspected or certified to provide fire endurance and fail quickly in fires. Listed composite IBCs are designed, built, and certified to last at least 20 minutes in a fire.

Generally, flammable liquids with a flash point below 100oF (38oC) should never be placed in any type of plastic or composite IBCs, listed or unlisted, and combustible liquids should never be used in unlisted composite IBCs. 

For more information on IBCs and the “Contain IBC Fire Risk” campaign, visit nfpa.org/foundation.


 

Firefighter Fatalities Rise
A preview of the 2013 U.S. Firefighter Fatality Study

In 2013, two particularly catastrophic incidents combined to cause a sharp increase in the number of firefighters in the U.S. who were fatally injured while on duty.

In April, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas killed a total of 15 people, including local residents and several first responders, and in June a wildland fire in Arizona claimed the lives of 19 firefighters. Another 67 firefighters were killed while on duty in 2013.

Those are some of the key findings in the “2013 U.S. Firefighter Fatality Study,” authored by Rita F. Fahy, Paul R. LeBlanc, and Joseph L. Molis of NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division.

Additional findings include the following:

  • The largest share of firefighter deaths occurred at fires (almost 60 percent), including four in a roof collapse in Texas in May.
  • About 20 percent of the deaths in 2013 occurred while firefighters responded to or returned from emergencies.
  • Aside from the two most deadly incidents, sudden cardiac death was responsible for the largest share of the firefighter
    fatalities in 2013—43 percent.
  • Firefighters who died on duty in 2013 ranged in age from 19 to 76.

The complete report on the 2013 fatalities will be presented at the NFPA Conference + Expo in Las Vegas in June, and will appear in the July/August issue of NFPA Journal.

For more information on firefighter fatalities in the U.S., and for the latest statistics and research about fire, visit NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division online at nfpa.org/research.


 

Safety Ally
New study offers compelling look at smoke alarms in U.S. home fires

Smoke alarms are one of the most potent weapons in the fight against fire deaths, according to “Smoke Alarms in U.S. Home Fires,” a recent report published by NFPA.

Even so, more than a third of home fire deaths in the United States between 2007 and 2011 resulted from fires in properties in which no smoke alarms were present, and a quarter of the deaths resulted from fires in properties in which smoke alarms were present but failed to operate.

“Surprisingly,” says NFPA’s Marty Ahrens, author of the report, “the death rate was much higher in fires in which a smoke alarm was present but did not operate than it was in fires in which the homes had no smoke alarms at all.”

According to the study, smoke alarm failures are usually the result of missing, disconnected, or dead batteries. (Most of the smoke alarms used in homes in the U.S. are battery-powered.) When smoke alarms should have operated but did not, it was usually because their batteries were missing, had been disconnected, or were dead. People are most likely to remove or disconnect batteries because of nuisance activations.

Although recent editions of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, require interconnected smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside each sleeping area, and on every level of the home, many homes still do not have them.

NFPA recommends installing smoke alarms inside every bedroom, outside each sleeping area, and on every level of the home, including the basement. For the best protection, all smoke alarms should be interconnected so that when one sounds, they all sound. Both photoelectric and ionization smoke alarms, or combination ionization and photoelectric alarms known as dual sensor alarms, should be installed. An ionization smoke alarm is generally more responsive to flaming fires, while a photoelectric smoke alarm is generally more responsive to smoldering fires.

All alarms should be replaced every 10 years, or sooner if they do not respond properly when tested. And all smoke alarms should be tested at least once a month using the test button.

For more information on smoke alarms and safety tips, visit nfpa.org/smokealarms.

Smoke alarm facts

  • The death rate was twice as high in homes that did not have any working smoke alarms as it was in home fires with working smoke alarms.
  • More than a third of home fire deaths resulted from fires in properties with no smoke alarms while roughly one-quarter were caused by fires in which a smoke alarm was present but did not operate.
  • In reported home fires in which smoke alarms were present but did not operate, almost half (47 percent) of the smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries and one-quarter (24 percent) had dead batteries.
  • Many homes do not have the protection required in recent editions of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, which requires interconnected smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside each sleeping area, and on every level of the home.

 

IN BRIEF
NFPA Joins US/UK Pact for Wildfire Education and Mitigation

 NFPA has signed a memorandum of understanding(MOU) with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) for the delivery of wildland/urban interface (WUI) education and wildland fire risk mitigation programs.

The CFOA represents all fire and rescue services in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and works to reduce the loss of life, personal injury, and damage to property and the environment by improving the quality of firefighting, rescue, fire protection and fire prevention across the UK.

The relationship will help the CFOA address growing concerns regarding climate change, increased demands for new homes in the WUI, and variations in land management practices across the UK, placing a greater emphasis on holistic solutions to wildfire mitigation and safety education that include fire and rescue services, land management agencies, civic leaders, and homeowners.

“The problem of wildland fires is international,” said James M. Shannon, NFPA’s president. “NFPA is pleased to join these organizations to expand the outreach of wildland fire safety in the UK. This is a great opportunity to collaborate on a common goal—reducing the losses associated with wildfire.”

The new partnership will allow CFOA to base the development of its materials and programs on NFPA’s and IAFC’s

Firewise Communities/USA®, Fire Adapted Communities, and Ready, Set, Go! programs, according to the MOU. CFOA will recommend and implement its own WUI programs, wildfire mitigation strategies, and codes aimed at reducing WUI property loss and increasing public awareness of wildfire risk throughout the UK.

For more information on NFPA’s wildland fire initiatives, please visit nfpa.org/wildfire.

Safety Educator Award Announced
Samantha Hoffmann, a public fire and life safety officer and public information officer for the Barrie Fire & Emergency Service in Barrie, Ontario, Canada, has been named NFPA’s 2014 Fire and Life Safety Educator of the Year.

The award recognizes a fire and life safety educator who works for a local fire department, uses NFPA’s materials in consistent and creative ways, and demonstrates excellence and innovation in reaching out to the community.

Hoffmann collaborated with Ontario’s educational television network to create a version of NFPA’s “Learn Not to Burn” program that reached a large audience. She developed the “Push the Button” campaign to encourage children and their parents to test their smoke alarms, as well as an assortment of videos and online safety games. She is also active with the Remembering When™ program for older adults.

Hoffman will be recognized at an award presentation at the NFPA Conference + Expo in Las Vegas in June.

2014 Jensen Grant Awarded
The Chambersburg (Pennsylvania) Fire Department has been named winner of NFPA’s 2014 Rolf H. Jensen Memorial Public Education Grant.

The $5,000 grant will support the department’s campaign, “The Smoke Alarm is Sounding: Know What to Do.” The effort was launched following a smoke alarm installation program last year, when the fire department conducted a survey and found that most families did not have a fire escape plan.

NFPA awards the grant annually to support a community-wide fire and life safety education program or campaign.

As part of the campaign, the fire department will present a lesson on fire escape planning to children under 12, their parents, and older adults. The lesson will culminate in a fire drill designed to allow participants to practice what they learned in a controlled environment. The final step in the program is the installation of smoke alarms for any participant who does not have adequate coverage.

The program will be evaluated through surveys, comparisons of fire response data, and documentation on individuals reached and number of smoke alarms installed.

For more information on the grant, visit nfpa.org/Jensen.

 

Tallying the Cost
New report breaks down the total cost of fire in the U.S.

The total cost of fire in the United States is up 34 percent over 1980, according to a new report issued by NFPA.

The latest “Total Cost of Fire in the United States” report, compiled by NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, estimated the total cost of fire in 2011 at $329 billion, or roughly 2.1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Adjusted for inflation, the total cost represents a 34 percent increase over 1980, while its proportion of U.S. GDP has declined by about one-third.

Tallying the Costs

California firefighters battle a fire at a frozen foods plant in 2011.

Photograph: AP/Wide World

However, both the total cost of fire and its associated percentage of GDP have been roughly steady for the past decade and a half.

The core total cost of fire is defined as the sum of economic loss, such as property damage and business interruption, and the cost of provisions to prevent or mitigate the cost of fire, such as fire departments, insurance, and the fire protection part of construction.

The complete total cost of fires adds costs that cannot be measured every year or do not involve direct payments, including costs of compliance with fire safety standards for equipment and other products, the value of the time donated by volunteer firefighters, human loss, and federal government costs for fighting wildfires.

The report also found that, while the core total cost of fire has increased by 40 percent since 1980, to a total of $108.4 billion, the economic loss due to fire decreased by 31 percent, totaling $14.9 billion, with all figures adjusted for inflation.

Also, fires in 2011 caused $13.3 billion in direct property damage (reported or unreported), which represented 89 percent of economic loss that year. The other 11 percent was indirect loss, such as temporary housing and business interruption.

For more on the total cost of fire, visit nfpa.org/TotalCost.


 

Bon Voyage
John Hall, NFPA’s statistics guru, retires

After three decades as head of NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, Dr. John R. Hall, Jr. retired from NFPA on April 30.

John Hall

Dr. John R. Hall, Jr.

Photograph: Adrienne Albrecht

Hall departs with a worldwide reputation in the fire protection community for his analysis of data on all aspects of the fire problem. “Fire professionals know that they can rely on his work as they look for new ways to improve fire safety,” says NFPA President James Shannon. “He has had a huge impact throughout his career at NFPA.”

Hall arrived at NFPA in 1984, and soon helped launch the One-Stop Data Shop for national fire data. He oversaw statistical studies on a vast range of topics that were valuable to anyone crafting fire safety guidance. The process “meant building analysis capability beyond my own and building a consensus throughout the fire safety field on the characteristics of good fire statistics,” Hall says.

Hall says retirement means more time for his number-one hobby—memorabilia from TV science fiction shows, a passion that began with a love of Star Trek. “Just don’t call me a Trekkie,” he says. “It sounds too much like a cult.”

Live long and prosper, John.