Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 4, 2014.

Texas fire marshal honored for leadership following West explosion

CHRIS CONNEALY, THE TEXAS STATE fire marshal, doesn’t have to look far into the past to remember his worst day on the job: April 17, 2013, the day an ammonium nitrate storage facility in West, Texas, caught fire and blew up, killing 15 people, including 10 firefighters.

But at least now he doesn’t have to look hard to find one of his best days, either.

In August, the National Association of State Fire Marshals presented Connealy with its President’s Award—honoring outstanding efforts and leadership during the past year—in large part for his work in the wake of the West tragedy.

“While I got the award and represent the office of state fire marshal, it’s the result of all we’ve been doing collectively in this office,” Connealy told NFPA Journal shortly after learning of the award. Connealy and his efforts were a focus of “
Hard Lessons,” the March/April cover story in NFPA Journal that detailed the explosion, the hazards associated with storage of ammonium nitrate, and the work of the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office to advocate for safer storage and firefighting practices at these facilities.

In the 16 months since the West explosion, Connealy has crisscrossed the state, holding public meetings to educate stakeholders and prevent a repeat tragedy. By the end of this year he will have held 66 public meetings, one in every county in Texas.

“On a mission”

There are indications that Connealy’s efforts are working. In May, just a month after he held a meeting there, an ammonium nitrate storage warehouse caught fire in Athens, Texas. Instead of rushing in to attempt to put out the blaze, as had been done in West, firefighters turned their attention to evacuating residents.

Although the warehouse ultimately didn’t explode, “they did exactly what we are preaching out there from lessons learned from West,” Connealy said.

In May, Connealy’s office released a report studying the fire service response in West. The report found that the local fire department had no pre-fire plan in place for West Fertilizer, the facility where the ammonium nitrate was stored, and that the department lacked a tactical risk assessment. Using that report, Connealy plans to hit the road again next year to hold 10 to 15 regional meetings with Texas fire officials to “have a frank discussion on firefighter safety.”

As Connealy has pursued his education and boots-on-the-ground approach, he’s also been thinking big-picture. The Texas state Legislature is expected to take up a proposal next year that would create an advisory board—with Connealy as a member—responsible for recommending new laws regarding the storage of dangerous compounds such as ammonium nitrate. Texas is one of only two states that does not have a state fire code.

Connealy is also involved on the technical committee of
NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code, which is in the process of revising and adding language in light of the West explosion.

“All of these efforts are paying off. We’re on a mission and we’re going to complete it and prevent another West,” Connealy said. “Part of that includes updating NFPA code, and part is educating people so they can make changes. There’s no doubt that we’ve made progress and we’ll keep on pushing.”