NIOSH: West firefighters had no plan for fertilizer plant response

Ten responders were killed in 2013 when the Texas plant exploded

Failure to recognize the hazards of ammonium nitrate and the lack of pre-incident planning were among factors that contributed to the deaths of 10 responders at the West Fertilizer Plant blast in 2013.

On April 17, 2013, 10 responders were killed when a burning fertilizer plant containing an estimated 40 to 60 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded just outside the city limits of West, Texas. The explosion occurred less than 20 minutes after responders arrived on-scene.

The victims included 9 volunteer firefighters and one off-duty career fire captain. Two civilians who responded to offer assistance were also killed. Five other volunteer firefighters were injured.

NIOSH investigators recommended that fire departments conduct pre-incident inspections of buildings, especially for high-hazard structures and occupancies. They also said departments should have a written task management plan, implement and enforce a written incident management system, ensure all firefighters wear appropriate PPE and are trained to standards that meet or exceed NFPA 1001.

Additionally, governing agencies should:

  • Consider regulating automatic sprinkler systems, performing regular fire inspections and other types of active fire prevention methods in industrial facilities
  • Consider following the most current safe handling procedures for ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage and handling.

Investigators also scrutinized the training of firefighters.

"The State of Texas does not have any minimum training requirements for volunteer fire departments,” the report said. “The fire department involved in this incident did not have specific training requirements for firefighter, fire officer or incident commander duties.… At a minimum, firefighters who serve as company officers and who may be expected to serve as the initial incident commander should receive training equivalent to Fire Fighter II, as defined by NFPA 1001."

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