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Rapid Response: Coordination is key on incidents literally spanning states

Ohio and Kentucky fire departments work in a unified command to manage a fire and hazmat incident on the Brent Spence Bridge connecting the states


Covington fire personnel were first to arrive since there is an easier access to the northbound lanes from their jurisdiction, just as access to the southbound lanes is better from Cincinnati.

Photo/Covington Professional Firefighters Local 38

What happened

On Nov. 11, at approximately 2:45 a.m., a tractor-trailer and a box truck collided on the northbound lanes of the Brent Spence Bridge – the major Interstate 75 link across the Ohio River that connects Ohio and Kentucky. The bridge carries an estimated 200,000 vehicles daily.

The impact ruptured one or more diesel fuel tanks that ignited.

Both drivers were able to escape, the semi driver with his bill of lading, and the box truck driver who later reported that his truck was carrying hazardous material – approximately 110 pounds of potassium hydroxide solution.

Coordinated response efforts

While the bridge technically is under the jurisdiction of the State of Kentucky, both the Covington (Kentucky) and Cincinnati (Ohio) fire departments are usually notified and respond to incidents on the bridge. The departments have good working arrangements with one another and frequently operate and assist each other on major emergencies within each jurisdiction.

Covington fire personnel were first to arrive since there is an easier access to the northbound lanes from their jurisdiction, just as access to the southbound lanes is better from Cincinnati. Covington began to advance on the fire when they noticed the DOT placards indicating that hazardous material was onboard.

Setting up a command post on the south side of the bridge, Covington notified Cincinnati responding units that this was now a fire and hazmat incident, and requested they hold their positions. Fortunately, a Cincinnati district chief had already crossed into Kentucky using an alternative bridge, allowing both departments to operate from a unified command post on the Kentucky side.

At some point, witnesses indicated that there was an explosion of some kind, but it is unknown if that had anything to do with the potassium hydroxide or whether it was from the rupture of a fuel tank.

Operations included a truck fire and hazmat response from both departments with a special call for a foam engine with 500 gallons of AFFF and a fire boat from Cincinnati.

The fire boat along with numerous large master streams were used to knock down and keep flare-ups in check before it was safe to re-insert fire personnel on the bridge. The safety of all personnel on the scene was paramount in the minds of those at the command post.

The command post also notified the Coast Guard and EPA of the issues and requested that all river traffic be halted from transiting under the bridge. That order remains in effect pending the further clean-up and inspection of the bridge’s structural integrity.

No one was reported injured from either the crash or the subsequent fire and hazmat incident.

Representatives from the federal and states’ transportation departments began an assessment of the damage early Thursday. Transportation officials also closed the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge built in 1866 upstream from the I-75 bridge due to heavy truck traffic using that as an alternative route that exceeded the bridge’s load capacity.

Initial takeaways from this incident

While a more detailed post-incident wash will take place in the near future, there are several immediate lessons that all of us could learn from this response.

  • Direct communication between both responding departments was a key factor in the coordination of fire attack on this incident.
  • Frequent automatic aid, pre-incident, helped develop a familiarity between the departments, resulting in a seamless emergency response.
  • Recognition of the potential hazard to the safety of fire personnel from the hazardous material carried on one of the trucks led to an immediate change from the initial fire tactics.
  • The subsequent use of master streams and AFFF foam, including from a fire boat on the river, not only contained and subsequently extinguished the fire, but also helped dilute the potassium hydroxide solution involved.
  • The utilization of a Unified Command not only improved the coordinated actions of those responding firefighters, but also allowed for quicker notifications to the multiple local, state and federal agencies that had assets to help mitigate the incident.
  • When it comes to firefighting, this incident clearly shows that state boundaries should just be lines on a map, not impediments to automatic aid.

What’s next

At a Wednesday afternoon press conference held by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, it was determined that the bridge may remain closed to traffic for days or more likely even weeks depending on what extent of damage is found on the superstructure. Just the repaving of the lanes on the bridge will require more than a week of work.

The replacement of the bridge, built in the 1950s, has been an ongoing discussion among Ohio and Kentucky officials and the federal transportation department representatives for almost a decade.

[Read more incident response takeaways at the FireRescue1 Rapid Response resource page]

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.

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