Mutual aid agreements, early monitoring crucial to Deer Park response

Preplanning fire department involvement in a chemical industry fire, and keeping the public informed helps mutual aid partners contain a chemical fire


By Chief Marc Bashoor

In Harris County, Texas, just outside the outer beltway, Deer Park, a small city of 35,000, has essentially become an extension of Houston – the largest city in the southern United States and the fourth largest U.S. city overall. The Houston shipping channel is one of the busiest U.S. ports, with a significant volume of inland barges carrying large quantities of materials including, among other things, a plethora of hazardous, volatile and highly flammable materials.

The Intercontinental Terminal Company (ITC) has the capacity to store 13,058,136 barrels, which it receives and distributes by vessel, barge, rail car, tank truck and pipeline system connections. While there are a myriad of environmental rules, regulations and laws impacting this and similar facilities, a 2016 Houston Chronicle report indicated there is a major chemical incident once every 6 weeks in the Houston area.

What happened: At about 10:30 a.m., March 17, 2019, as reported by ITC plant officials, there was “a release of product near the Naphtha tank, that found an ignition source.” A large black plume quickly raised over the city, and a local shelter-in-place order was issued quickly. A city-wide shelter-in-place was ordered by 1:25 p.m. It would take 11 hours (9:23 pm) for plant officials to confirm two tanks were on fire. By 1:30 a.m., the fire was confirmed to have spread to seven tanks, with many more exposed. Before the fire was declared out for the first time, 65 hours later, at 3:00 a.m. Wednesday, March 20, 11 tanks would become involved.

Firefighters battle a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company Monday, March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas. The large fire at a Houston-area petrochemicals terminal will likely burn for another two days, authorities said Monday, noting that air quality around the facility was testing within normal guidelines. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Firefighters battle a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company Monday, March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas. The large fire at a Houston-area petrochemicals terminal will likely burn for another two days, authorities said Monday, noting that air quality around the facility was testing within normal guidelines. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Like dominos, the cascading effects of the initial incident continue to unfold. Friday afternoon, when boil-overs and a portion of the containment dyke failed, the foam blanket was disrupted, allowing product and foam to flow into the ditches and water adjacent to the channel. This resulted in the temporary closure of portions of the shipping channel.

Likely a partial result of that foam-blanket interruption, the fire reignited Friday, March 22, with another fireball and toxic black smoke plume hovering over the community and beyond. Three of the previous 11 tanks that had been involved reignited and, along with the dyke collapse runoff, contributed to a running fuel fire.

This resulted in another shelter-in-place order, with schools, parks, businesses and residents impacted again. Firefighters were able to control this reignition in about an hour. The shelter-in-place orders were later lifted. Thankfully, winds were relatively light, however, the breeze out of the southeast meant the city of Houston would be in the plume’s crosshairs.

Channel Industries Mutual Aid agreement was activated

After the ITC fire started, the story evolved on mainstream social media, with a number of “experts” opining on how to extinguish the fire and deal with the situation.

I reached out to several industry professionals who responded to the ITC terminal and spoke with Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena. Their insights and candor provide an on-the-ground look at the true gravity and breadth of response that has gone into this incident, and the hundreds of other incidents like it under their collective belts.

The meat-and-potatoes response at ITC first occurs at the plant and municipal level, with additional assistance provided under the Channel Industries Mutual Aid (CIMA) agreement – the expected collection of public safety agencies from Harris County, Houston, industry and surrounding communities form this very robust collaborative of 120 companies. While most, if not all, of the tank yards have their own fire brigade, with firefighting, EMS, high angle, foam or nearly any capability you can think of, the CIMA agreement provides the staffing, pumping and mobile force necessary for these larger firefights.

CIMA activation is not necessarily automatic, however the activation is normal and routine for incidents occurring in these facilities. Typically, a 911 call results in a fire brigade and municipal response, followed by a CIMA activation depending on scope and scale. At this particular incident, as in many industrial events, information has been held tight. Mindful of the proverbial gangs of lawyers standing by to put their mark on the incident, and under routine gag orders, most people are unwilling to talk candidly on the record about the incident.

By all accounts, any initial systemic attempts at sub-service foam injection either failed to work or were insufficient to overcome the volume of fire. At this stage, without video evidence, there is no way to know whether any damage may have been caused to protective systems from the initial ignition/blast. A very early activation of the CIMA agreement was clearly in order.

This photo of the ITC yard shows the complexity firefighting forces are faced with routinely in these types of facilities. In this particular field of 15 tanks, only four remained viable. By Friday, three tanks (80-02, 03, 05) reignited and three (80-09, 13, 15) had collapsed in totality. Courtesy/www.iterm.com 
This photo of the ITC yard shows the complexity firefighting forces are faced with routinely in these types of facilities. In this particular field of 15 tanks, only four remained viable. By Friday, three tanks (80-02, 03, 05) reignited and three (80-09, 13, 15) had collapsed in totality. Courtesy/www.iterm.com 

Hazmat and medical resources called in

Chief Pena reported that early in the incident, medical monitoring resources were requested by the incident commander and that the Houston Fire Department deployed their ambulance bus and several medical supervisors to the scene. They maintained that presence there for two days throughout most of the initial stages of the incident.

The HFD hazmat team is assisting the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office with air monitoring and emergency hazardous materials response capabilities. HFD continues to provide technical support to the incident commander. Currently, the HFD hazmat coordinator is leading near-scene air monitoring efforts with the assistance of the 6th Civil Support Team and TIFMAS Hazardous Materials Technicians from around the state of Texas. 

Chief Pena spoke of the mammoth effort to respond to this type of incident, stating “the possible effects of the incident don’t stop at the edge of our service jurisdiction. We are one community and we are committed to helping our partners in public safety as they work tirelessly to ensure the health and safety of community. HFD and other city resources will remain engaged in support and response activities until further notice.” The HFD will keep two monitoring teams on duty around the clock to respond to air quality concerns until further notice.

“Early-and-often” air monitoring in the Houston area is crucial to the public messaging for this type of incident. As you seen in the map below, various monitoring points were activated to watch the plume. Although the event occurred east-southeast of Houston, the plume carried over the city to the northwest, in an area with over 4,000,000 people. In addition to shelter-in-place orders that were issued, several moderate to unhealthy air alerts have been posted and lifted.

Harris County Pollution Control tested for Volatile Organic Compounds using handheld monitors after the Deer Park fire began. Courtesy/www.ReadyHarris.org
Harris County Pollution Control tested for Volatile Organic Compounds using handheld monitors after the Deer Park fire began. Courtesy/www.ReadyHarris.org

Top takeaways on the Deer park chemical fire

Here are the top takeaways on this chemical fire from speaking with Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena:

  1. Exercise and update mutual aid agreements. Pre-arranged mutual aid agreements are a critical first step in emergency response. Whether you’re a big-city fire department, a local volunteer fire department or a petro-chemical facility, mutual aid agreements provide the basis for successful response. Please understand that having an agreement is the first step. That agreement must be exercised and appropriately updated on a regular basis.
  2. Inform the public. Early and often air-monitoring and public messaging is critical to accurate information flow. Anecdotally, people know that a black cloud is unhealthy, however, the fear associated with the visual effects can be quickly managed and massaged with timely and accurate information flow.
  3. Get involved in industry planning. Local fire departments must become part of the solution to both the response and the regulatory process. There are many questions about tank spacing and containment capacities, most of which alone could overwhelm a fire chief. There is a lot of time, money and politics invested in the chemical industry. Fire departments need to ensure they are part of that mix, before that mix absorbs them.
  4. Safety first. There is little to win in these fires. The tsunami of boiling oil tanks, failed dykes and flowing product are killers. While you can’t simply allow the fire to expand unchecked, weather and local conditions will be great influencers in your strategic and tactical considerations for these types of incidents.

Chemical industry history with the fire department

ITC has resided in the Deer Park community for over 40 years, housing 254 tanks in this particular tank yard. This yard and ITC have been no stranger to disaster, with a 1986 explosion occurring while a barge was being loaded resulted in one fatality, at least seven injured, and the destruction (burning) of 2 fire engines.

In September 2016, the MT Aframax River ship was being piloted into the ITC port when it struck two moorings, resulting in the release of 88,000 gallons of product and a massive fireball. The firefighting forces were amazingly able to control the fire in an intense 90-minute firefight. This time-lapse video from the ICT port shows a small portion of the effort to keep the ship away from other dangers.

While there have been many other incidents, the EPA online data reports this plant has violated the Clean Water Act nine of the past 12 quarters. The Houston Chronicle reports that ITC has been “fined tens of thousands of dollars for various violations stretching back as far as records can be found.”

It wasn’t too long ago that a high level of distrust and unfamiliarity between industry and the fire service compromised public safety significantly. When my fire service career began, 38 years ago, I vividly recall threats and bluster between fire chiefs and industry officials over territory and responsibility at various chemical, nuclear and public infrastructure facilities. In many cases, the fire department could expect to either never receive a call about an event at these facilities, or to be blocked by armed guards if they tried to respond.

Before Hazwoper training became the industry standard, and as relationships between plants and local officials matured, plant emergency response teams began delivering training to local first responders. Hazwoper Operations is now our industry standard. While the relationship between the fire service and industry has improved, there is still a level of distrust between the private companies and government officials charged with monitoring and responding to catastrophic events.

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