Emergency Response Plans: The Benefits of Integration

Developing one emergency response plan can eliminate confusion and help your facility respond effectively to a wide range of emergencies.

by Jonathan Borak, M.D., and Bernard D. Silverstein, CIH

Emergency response planning is required at most industrial facilities by an array of overlapping federal, state and municipal laws and regulations. The most far-reaching of the requirements are found in regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). For a detailed description of the most important EPA and OSHA regulations, see "Emergency Planning: The Key Regulations."

Although the various regulations share many similarities, they also contain important differences. As a consequence, they pose a complex challenge to prepare and maintain legal and adequate written emergency plans responsive to individual laws. On the other hand, there is a practical need that response plans be clear, consistent and implementable. Reconciling these two agendas can be difficult.

One difficulty stems from interagency conflicts. The relevant federal agencies have different orientations. OSHA's main concern is the health and well-being of workers, a concern that resides within the fence line. Its regulations demand that managers adopt an "inward" perspective. By contrast, EPA is focused on the effects of emergencies outside a facility's perimeter. Its requirements demand an "outward" perspective. Managers responsible for a facility"s emergency response plans must resolve this "inside/outside" dichotomy.

Difficulties also arise because individual regulations are often narrowly defined by specific "media" concerns. Planning requirements differ according to whether emergencies threaten water, air or other natural resources. Likewise, important differences are found in the planning requirements for "hazardous substances," compared with "hazardous wastes."

Facilities usually maintain multiple sets of emergency plans, each dealing with a different emergency scenario. Too often, that approach results in plans that are internally inconsistent and difficult to implement. There is a new approach to response planning, however, that avoids such difficulties and makes the planning process more efficient and effective.

Who's in Charge?

An important example of difficulties resulting from reliance on multiple emergency response plans concerns incident command structures. Because different emergency regulations require different command structures, it is often not easy to answer the question: "Who's in charge?" More than an abstract concern, confusion or conflict over incident command can pose substantial risks that incident response will be compromised.

Consider, for example, the potential for confusion and conflict that could arise when a container holding a large quantity of nitric acid fails. Nitric acid is a chemical listed under the Comprehensive Emergency Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), EPA's Risk Management Program (RMP) 112(r) rule and OSHA's Process Safety Standard.

As these regulations are written, the emergency response plan that applied would depend on release circumstances. If the nitric acid were commercial-grade, federal regulations in EPCRA, RMP 112(r) and Hazardous Waste Operation and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) would all apply to the incident.

In addition, if the nitric acid were greater than 94.5 percent pure by weight, it would also be regulated under OSHA's Process Safety Standard. Moreover, if it were contaminated or had been stored as a hazardous waste, then in addition to EPCRA, RMP 112(r) and HAZWOPER, that spill of nitric acid would also be governed by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Furthermore, if it were stored as a hazardous waste, but was greater than 94.5 percent nitric acid by weight, the OSHA Process Safety Standard would apply.

Restated simply, the emergency response to a release of nitric acid might be simultaneously governed by five separate, nonidentical federal regulations. Because each regulation and plan dictates a somewhat different incident command structure, actual incident command for this hypothetical nitric acid release would depend on release circumstances:

  • EPCRA requires designation of a facility emergency coordinator, but does not describe that individual"s qualifications, capacities or training.
  • RCRA requires a named primary emergency coordinator. Training is required, but the specific contents of an emergency coordinator's training are not specified. The emergency coordinator directly supervises facility response operations, implements risk assessments, files notifications, directs post-incident cleanup and communicates with EPA and other community agencies and organizations.
  • HAZWOPER requires an on-scene incident commander who assumes control of all emergency response operations at the facility. HAZWOPER assigns to its incident commander many, but not all, of the responsibilities that RCRA assigns to its emergency coordinator. Incident commanders must receive at least 24 hours of training, plus annual recertification.

There are other command structures, not specifically pertinent to the release of nitric acid, but relevant to many other commonly occurring chemicals, that could contribute to confusion among emergency responders. One example is the required "designated person" who is accountable for oil spill prevention according to the requirements of the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasures Plan (SPCC) required under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.

There are enough differences among the emergency response regulations to create significant confusion at facilities electing to develop separate plans for each regulation. In addition to command structures, important differences are found in areas such as training requirements, equipment needs and operating protocols.

Integrated Contingency Planning

Fortunately, there is an alternative. The National Response Team (NRT), comprised of EPA, OSHA, Department of Interior (DOI) and Department of Transportation (DOT), has published a guideline on the integration of emergency response contingency plans (Fed Reg 61:28642, 1996). The guideline, which has been in effect since June 1996, has been successfully implemented at a limited number of facilities. This guideline also has been written into EPA's RMP 112(r) rule and is a recommended alternative format for required written emergency plans. Many companies who developed their RMP for the June 1999 deadline have prepared and submitted the Integrated Contingency Plan (ICP). The use of ICPs to comply with EPA's RMP 112(r) rule has provided a catalyst for employing this underutilized, albeit valuable, guideline.

The ICP process begins with an understanding of the various laws and regulations. Facility managers can then determine which specific requirements and components of those regulations must be met.

How to Achieve Plan Integration

To accomplish integration of emergency response plans, NRT recommends the following general approach and principles:

  • Develop a single standard command structure for all types of emergencies. Historically, emergencies have been divided by type, such as fire, explosion, chemical release and medical emergency. Designating a different command structure for each type of emergency can readily lead to internal conflicts. For example, releases of hazardous chemicals can often lead to fires, explosions or injuries. If a facility's command structure is based on such a traditional division of responsibilities, there may be confusion over who is in charge. An integrated command structure avoids this problem.
  • Create an "inside/outside" division of emergency-related functions. Functions should be assigned according to the divisions of labor that would apply during an emergency. For example, individuals involved in fire suppression or cleanup of spills are only rarely the same individuals who initiate mandated phone calls that report incidents to federal and state regulatory agencies or file post-incident written reports.
  • Establish standard training programs that incorporate a spectrum of response skills. Because different types of emergencies overlap, first responders should be trained to handle all emergencies that can be expected at the site. In particular, we discourage training programs that deal narrowly with a single rule or regulation. It is more logical and cost-effective to integrate training for HAZWOPER, RCRA, SPCC and CAAA.
  • Develop a consistent approach to the selection and use of personal protective equipment.
  • Use a simple, straightforward format in preparing emergency response plans. The operational plan should be concise and contain only fundamental response procedures. More specific detailed information should be relegated to a series of appendices. Updating the plan will involve changing information only in the appendices.
  • Consolidate common elements required in various plans. Many regulations require a site description; some require detailed site drawings and maps. Prepare one comprehensive set of such materials that can serve all of the facility's response plans. Likewise, create one roster of emergency response personnel and one list of emergency response equipment that is appropriate for all required plans.
  • To ensure and demonstrate compliance with applicable, site-specific regulations, develop a table, that cross-references individual regulatory requirements with your integrated plan.

Conclusion

Developing a single integrated emergency response plan will minimize duplication, is less expensive to maintain than multiple plans and enhances response capabilities. Integrated emergency plans eliminate confusion for responders and simplify communications, within and outside of the facility.

Over the last decade, we have seen an explosion of regulatory development. It"s about time we see our government's health, safety and environmental agencies working together to provide a shared compliance process that provides economic benefits to companies and enhanced protection for our workers and surrounding communities.

Jonathan Borak, M.D., is associate clinical professor of Medicine and Public Health at Yale University and president of Jonathan Borak and Co., a consulting firm specializing in environmental and occupational toxicology, risk assessment and emergency preparedness. Formerly the director of a large trauma center, his training programs on emergency response to chemical releases have been taught worldwide.

Bernard D. Silverstein, MS, CIH, is the director of marketing and project management for emergency response programs for Jonathan Borak and Co., headquartered in Yardley, Pa. Contact him at (215) 321-9709 or [email protected] He has been an emergency responder, coordinator and manager for the Department of Energy and for several major chemical companies.

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