Fire Chief Jeff Johnson Testifies on Capitol Hill in Support of Better Hazmat Preparedness

June 9, 2009
Jeff Johnson, first vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and chief of Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, called for improved national preparedness for the response to hazmat incidents during testimony before the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

During his testimony, Johnson recognized that there are nearly 1 million daily shipments of hazardous material; however, there are about 250,000 incidents each year. He assured Congress that when these incidents occur, "The local fire and emergency services will respond to protect the public."

Johnson discussed the new challenges facing the fire and emergency services, including the greater production and shipment of alternative fuels like ethanol, the threat of a terrorist attack and the challenges and opportunities of dealing with technology. Specifically, Chief Johnson made the following recommendations:

Authorize the National Hazardous Materials Fusion Center – The National Hazmat Fusion Center is a joint project between the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the IAFC to create an information portal and data network to link first responders, state and local agencies and the private sector around the country to share experiences and information on new and emerging hazmat challenges, like alternative fuels.

The National Hazmat Fusion Center also has established Regional Incident Survey Teams (RISTs) in every PHMSA region to gather information and lessons learned from major hazmat events. The RISTs are composed of skilled and experienced hazmat responders. They’ll be invited by local jurisdictions to develop best and effective practices from their analyses of the responses to major hazmat incidents.

Thoroughly test a paperless system for communicating hazards and shipping information before deployment – There have been proposals for PHMSA to develop a paperless and wireless data system for documenting transactions, tracing shipments and exchanging information about a shipment. This system should be thoroughly tested before deployment to determine how a public-safety agency would access this system, how much the equipment would cost and its reliability during an accident.

The IAFC recommends that the system be piloted in a cross-section of jurisdictions, including areas covered by major metropolitan fire departments and rural volunteer fire departments. The IAFC continues to support the current, effective hazmat placarding system.

Authorize PHMSA to regulate emergency-response consulting services – According to existing federal hazmat regulations, a carrier or person who offers hazmat for transport is required to provide a 24-hour emergency telephone number that will be answered by someone who can provide immediate emergency-response information or has immediate access to this information. In many cases, those offering hazmat for transport will utilize a third-party emergency-response consulting service to provide this information.

While some of these third-party services, such as CHEMTREC, are extremely helpful, not all are as timely and accurate as is necessary. The IAFC recommends that PHMSA be authorized to have oversight authority over these third-party services and work with emergency responders in developing performance criteria and minimum baseline standards for these services.

In concluding his remarks, Johnson told the subcommittee that the "IAFC sees PHMSA as a valued partner in helping the fire and emergency services meet the new challenges we face."

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