Working with Outside Emergency Resources

Your emergency response preparations should include taking time to develop and strengthen relationships with local first responders.

Fires, chemical releases and other incidents not only can cause physical damage to a facility, but they can also put the safety of employees, outside responders and the public in jeopardy. Moreover, large incidents can result in bad press and fines.

Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have many regulations requiring facilities to evaluate environmental and safety hazards in their workplace, and create written plans outlining what steps will be taken to lessen or mitigate those hazards.

Many times, these plans require facilities to name, and file copies of their plans with, outside resources such as local fire departments, police, emergency medical services (EMS) and local emergency management agencies (EMAs), which either must be contacted to report an incident, or which could provide back-up aid or other support in the event of an emergency.

Two Sides of the Coin

Too often, plan coordinators turn to the government pages in the local phone book, copy information for an agency that "sounds like a reasonable choice," conduct necessary training for their employees, and shelve their plans. As a result, they omit the often required steps of making the plans available to outside resources and contacting these entities to verify their availability in times of crisis.

Meanwhile, many local EMAs are looking for ways to partner with regulated facilities in their area to enhance facility and public safety while also helping to ensure the safety of fire, police and EMS personnel who may be called upon to aid in emergencies.

In fact, many states require local EMAs to host or conduct a variety of drills each year to help ensure that emergency personnel are prepared to handle emergencies that could occur in their communities. Developing partnerships with these organizations benefits all parties.

Identifying and Verifying Contacts

Using the phone book to fill in the necessary contact information in response plans may make them look complete on paper, but unless the outside resources named in the plans are familiar with the facility's response plans, physical layout and any specific hazards, they may not be able to safely assist in an emergency.

It is important that any outside resources know the specific roles that they are being asked to fulfill, and that they are capable of handling the facility's specific hazards, so that they are adequately prepared to safely assist in an actual emergency.

Emergencies are a terrible time for finding out that phone numbers are disconnected, that the agency listed is not the correct one to handle the situation, or that the outside contact listed in the plan has retired. For example, if hazardous waste is released at a facility after normal business hours, calling an office phone number for the county's solid and hazardous waste authority is unlikely to result in the needed aid being dispatched.

Finding the correct city or county resources does not have to take a lot of time. One call to the local EMA office typically results in a list of contact names, phone numbers and resources for nearly any incident. These officials usually can also provide details such as the names of local entities that need copies of your response plans and whether or not local agencies have any regulations that supercede federal requirements.

Once the correct agencies such as the closest fire department, local HAZMAT response team, hospital, police and EMS have been identified, contact each to ensure that phone numbers, addresses and contact names are indeed correct. This also provides an opportunity to interact with agency personnel and determine the extent to which they will be able to provide aid.

Putting a Name with a Face

Emergencies are a poor arena for meeting the fire or police chief for the first time. Establishing relationships and maintaining regular contact with emergency personnel before a crisis will help ensure that all parties are able to communicate properly and function mutually during an incident to help keep everyone safe.

One way to establish and maintain regular contact with emergency personnel and other outside resources is to become a member of the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC). Based on the size of the community, the LEPC may serve a single city or an entire county. Comprised mostly of emergency personnel, representatives from the media, personnel from regulated facilities and community support agencies, this committee is charged with creating and maintaining plans for responding to chemical and other emergencies in their community.

Local emergency personnel and others who serve on the LEPC often have many years of experience in their fields, and are usually more than willing to help review facility plans and make recommendations to help improve safety during responses. Most will be aware of equipment available for response to various scenarios and can help select "tried and true" tools for situations, as well as help identify gaps that current facility strategies and plans may not cover.

Looks Good on Paper

Although many regulations only require plans to be on file with various local authorities, inviting officials from those agencies to tour and become familiar with the layout of the facility proves to be a major benefit in times of crisis. Outside responders who know the layout of a facility are likely to be more comfortable aiding in a response, and will be able to provide that aid more quickly, because time does not need to be spent briefing them on floor plans and locations of hazardous materials or processes.

Plans may look fantastic on paper, but unless employees and outside resources know exactly what they need to do when an incident occurs, the plans are nearly worthless. This is one of the reasons why many EPA and OSHA regulations require training.

One important element of training is making sure that all employees know who to call and when to call them. This is not to say that every person at the facility needs to have the National Response Center and local fire chief's cell phone numbers memorized in fact, that would likely be counterproductive but each employee needs to know who to contact so that the proper help can be obtained, and the correct reports can be filed.

Current Events

In addition to creating response plans and hosting drills, it is important that the plans are reviewed periodically. If facility layouts, coordinators, phone numbers or other data changes, response plans will need to be updated. Even if everything seems to have stayed the same, annual reviews are a great way to verify this, and help ensure that the plan is still valid. Annual reviews are also a great time to verify phone numbers and contact names for any outside resources named in the plans.

As an appendix to response plans, maintain a list of any outside resources who have copies of the plan to facilitate contact with those resources, and also to serve as a mailing list, so that when changes are made, new copies of the plans can be sent without leafing through plans to find each address.

Rehearse It

After employees have been trained, drills are an excellent way to put training into practice. Coordinating drills with outside responders benefits both the facility, and the outside responders.

By hosting regular drills to practice responses to fire, chemical releases and natural disasters, employees and outside responders can get to know each other in a slightly less stressful atmosphere. This allows employees and responders to build trust in each other, and in the event of an actual emergency, that trust translates to increased safety for everyone.

Although full-scale drills involving various agencies can take some time to coordinate, the opportunity to provide interaction between employees and numerous outside agencies can be extremely beneficial to determining the adequacy of plans. Outside responders can often be an "extra set of eyes" and provide unbiased suggestions and directions for improvement.

For employees who are trained to respond to certain on-site emergencies, the chance to see how they fit into an incident command system, and how they will work with outside responders and others, is extremely valuable.

The community also benefits from involving outside response teams in drills. Many agencies rely on tabletop drills for training. The opportunity to actually be in a facility instead of just "entering a block" on the table provides a truer experience for them, which translates into greater safety for everyone in a real emergency.

Watching your Back

Working with and involving outside resources can provide facilities especially smaller facilities with essential services such as security. Fire and police are typically well trained in perimeter control. If an incident is large, or involves fatalities, site security often becomes critical.

Outside agencies are usually also well versed in incident command systems and know whom to contact for additional help. In addition, they can sometimes help control media inquiries and keep members of the press safely congregated in a designated area for comments and information, allowing responders and other essential services to perform their duties unimpeded by reporters.

Creating plans and coordinating drills takes time. Adding outside resources can sometimes compound efforts because more schedules need to be taken into account. However, overcoming these issues and scheduling regular drills benefits everyone involved and helps ensure everyone's safety in an emergency.

Karen D. Hamel is a technical specialist for New Pig Corp. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and has over 11 years of experience helping customers find solutions to their environmental, health and safety issues. She is HAZWOPER technician level-certified and serves on the Blair County, Pa. LEPC. She can be reached at (800) HOT-HOGS (468-4647) or by e-mail at [email protected]

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