I know you all join me again in sending our thoughts and prayers to the friends and families of those firefighters who perished in West, Texas — and indeed the entire community affected by the horrific explosion and fire on April 17.
I don't think anyone is surprised by the conclusions in the recently released OSHA report describing multiple safety lapses at the West Fertilizer Co. before the explosion. It's also notable that the investigation report was delayed due to the ongoing federal government shutdown.
The fact that this facility was last inspected by OSHA in 1982 should give us an idea of how much local fire departments can reasonably rely on federal or state regulatory agencies to help protect our firefighters and those we serve. These agencies are often under-resourced, overwhelmed with demand for their services, and subject to a highly politicized environment that can meaningfully affect the performance of their missions — as witness the aforementioned federal government shutdown.
Of course, we also know that local fire departments are often subject to similar resource constraints and differing political perspectives on health and safety regulation.
The answer to these dilemmas (regulate or don't regulate; do more with less, or do less with less) probably isn't throwing up our hands in disgust or defeat. The stakes are too high, as we saw in West.
Instead, this tragedy, and the report, reinforces the importance of ongoing area familiarization, pre-incident planning, constant training, and a candid dialogue with the community about their local fire department's capabilities and limitations during an incident where hazardous materials are involved.
About the author
With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel — FireRescue1's editorial advisor — is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.
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