Beirut and beyond: Planning for explosives in your community

4 steps to prepare for a fire involving hazardous or potentially explosive materials


The massive explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in Beirut, Lebanon, should be a wake-up call for the fire service in United States – and literally for all fire services around the world.

There have been other such events – the 2015 explosion in Tianjin, China, which I wrote about in “Firefighter lessons from massive explosions”; the 2013 West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion that killed 12 firefighters; and the 1947 Texas City, Texas, explosions aboard the freighters Grandcamp and High Flyer, both containing ammonium nitrate.

Let’s first examine the common threads of these incidents, and then we’ll detail the tactical response considerations.

French and Lebanese firemen search in the rubble of a building after the Tuesday explosion at the seaport of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020.
French and Lebanese firemen search in the rubble of a building after the Tuesday explosion at the seaport of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Common threads

First, in each of these fires and explosions, the devastation has been overwhelming, described even as “apocalyptic.” A reporter who had covered World War II in the Pacific compared the Texas City series of blasts and fires as matched only by his tour of the Japanese city of Nagasaki, where the second atomic bomb had been dropped. A similar statement was released from Beirut city officials, and preliminary scientific estimates based on the Richter scale indicate that this may have been the largest non-atomic explosion in modern history.

Second, while each of these explosions and fires resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries, it is important to note that the majority of the responding firefighters were killed while trying to get the initial fire under control.

Third, those firefighters who died either lacked the pertinent information about the contents on fire or were not properly trained, equipped or knowledgeable of the associated dangers. It has been estimated that such an explosion generates heat at the epicenter of over 9,000 degrees F – an important factor for all firefighters to know.

Action steps for any hazardous material

No matter the size of your community or your fire department, there are four action steps that are critical to prepare for a fire involving hazardous or potentially explosive materials, such as ammonium nitrate.

1. Identify the potential hazards

This may be one of the hardest steps for smaller fire departments, especially those without a dedicated fire inspector, but there are other resources that can come into play, such as the County Building Department, Emergency Management Agency, or the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC).

Under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency, an LEPC functions as part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). An LEPC must develop an emergency response plan, review the plan at least annually, and provide information about chemicals in the community to citizens. These plans are to be developed with stakeholder input, which certainly includes the local responding fire departments.

2. Plan ahead

When contacted about these potential hazards, fire officials should be frank about their capabilities, including their needs for additional equipment, water supply and training. The mitigation plan for such hazards should include regular exercises – whether tabletop, partial or full-scale – to help familiarize firefighters with the hazards they will face.

It is also a good time to meet those in charge of where the hazardous material is manufactured or stored to obtain 24-hour contact information, and the required Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) that contain information on the potential hazards (health, fire, reactivity and environmental) and how to work safely with these substances. It is an essential starting point for the development of the department’s action plan.

3. Regulate/control the potential hazard

While your department needs to be familiar with hazardous materials such as ammonium nitrate, you have partners that can help regulate these sites. Agencies such as your State Fire Marshal’s Office should be familiar with NFPA 400: Hazardous Materials Code as well as local and state fire and building codes that regulate substances like ammonium nitrate and track the quantities on site to ensure that proper safety devices (e.g., sprinkler systems and fire alarms) are in place to catch any fires in their incipient stage.

For the local fire department, the capability to support an on-site sprinkler system should be one of their first priorities. Adequate and reliable water sources are also a necessity.

4. Train, train, train

Working with partners like the county EMA, county hazmat team, LEPC and the state fire marshal should help provide fire departments with the opportunities to obtain additional training. Depending on how far developed the fire is on your arrival, one consideration may be to fall back and establish a safe zone for personnel, using monitor nozzles and large caliber hose streams at a distance.

As part of your training and your emergency plan, you need to determine how large an evacuation area you need to establish to protect both your citizens and your fire personnel. Based on the amount of ammonium nitrate stored, the county EMA working with one of FEMA’s sister agencies, DTRA Technical Reachback out of Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, can help establish that evacuation zone based on its blast potential.

There are also times when the best tactic is to let the substance burn, especially if the run-off itself may be worse than the fire. You need to be ready to make that difficult call when necessary.

Planning the “fertilizer building” and other considerations

Departments have more than just stationary facilities to consider. For example, do have a railroad crossing in your jurisdiction? If so, what is regularly transported over those rail lines? One city where I was fire chief for 10 years had 65 trains cross into its jurisdiction daily, each with approximately 100 rail cars.

The railroad estimated that at least 10% of their rail cars contained hazardous materials – that was roughly 650 loads of hazardous materials traversing the city each day, or roughly 27 each hour, 24/7/365, approximately one every two minutes. Needless to say, the railroad and its nearby rail yard where primary considerations in our emergency planning.

While you may look primarily at manufacturing and storage facilities, don’t forget the general store, feed store, or even big-box stores for quantities of hazardous materials, not just ammonium nitrate.

One of my early fire chiefs had grown up on a farm. As I had been a city boy all my life, he took me aside one time at a facility in our area known as “Spaeth’s General Store.” This was a series of out buildings along a main U.S. highway that had everything from construction materials to farm implements.

His purpose was to show me one particular building just known as the “fertilizer building.” In it we found tons of bagged ammonium nitrate, which from my time in the military I knew for its explosive power, but not as a fertilizer. He flatly told me, “If this building catches fire, our plan is to shut down the highway, evacuate the nearby residents, try to supply two remote monitor nozzles, and let it burn.”

Finally, substances like ammonium nitrate can show up in strange places. It was once found in an abandoned farm building about to be torn down for a new interstate highway interchange. Not surprisingly, blasting caps were also found in the same building and both were safely removed by the County Bomb Squad.

Final thoughts

The bottom line to be learned from the Beirut explosion and related tragedies is this: Now is the time for every fire department to a long look at its potential hazards, especially explosive compounds such as ammonium nitrate or picric acid, and identify, regulate, plan and train for the best outcome.

If your plan is to say a prayer each day that the manufacturing plant or storage facility in your jurisdiction doesn’t catch fire, then I’ll say a prayer for you and your firefighters.

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