We must move swiftly to prevent the next deadly chemical blast

In West, Texas a massive ammonium nitrate explosion rocked a fertilizer facility, leaving 15 people dead -- including 11 firefighters -- and hundreds of citizens injured. The explosion destroyed the facility, leveled scores of homes, a school and a nursing home within the blast zone.  And the toll could have been worse had the fire and explosion occurred several hours earlier during school time.

We now know a hole-filled patchwork of regulations and enforcement was not enough to prevent the West, Texas disaster.

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We now know the ammonium nitrate in the storage facility was packed in wooden bins, inside a wooden building, without sprinkler protection.

We now know the company was cited twice in the last seven years for improperly storing anhydrous ammonia.

We now know one large chemical explosion can devastate an entire community.

We now have the recent history to know that we can and we must do better.

This tragedy has rightly prompted serious questions about how this country is managing the risks to the public and to first responders of storing dangerous chemicals. Clearly, better information sharing, stricter rules and updated first responder training are needed - now.

To help decrease the danger of a tragedy of the West disaster -- or worse --  critical regulations must be tightened and first responders provided with more information and training regarding the location and storage of these unsafe substances.

These hazards are not confined to remote areas. Across the United States, some 470 facilities storing hazardous materials put more than 100,000 citizens in nearby communities directly in harm’s way, while millions more are threatened by the transport of dangerous substances on our highways and roads.

And it’s not just explosions we need to be worried about – the release of toxic gases like chlorine or anhydrous ammonia can devastate communities and kill thousands.

Such tragedies are preventable, but the current mix of federal and state regulations on this issue is not enough.  Action is needed because the United States lags behind other nations in regulating the storage of dangerous chemicals.

Since Congress is gridlocked on everything, including this issue, President Barack Obama on August 1 directed federal agencies to develop plans to make sure that chemical plants are as safe as possible. This is an important first step in enhancing the safety of communities around the United States. 

The executive order calls for a federal standard for identifying and responding to risks at chemical facilities by May 2014.

To ensure that fire fighters have as much information as possible about what they will find when they arrive on the scene of a chemical or hazardous substance scene, we are pushing for a new system for monitoring and securing dangerous chemicals that ensures chemical companies notify local emergency planning committees of all hazardous materials at their facilities.

Further, companies must quickly report any changes in the types of chemicals, storage and quantities so emergency responders can prepare for an emergency.

This seems obvious, but regulations and capabilities vary from state to state and enforcement is dramatically limited by budgets, staffing and backlogs.

In addition, fire fighters in risk areas must be properly trained in how to respond to emergencies involving hazardous materials and potential weapons of mass destruction. Beyond knowing what substances are stored in which buildings, fire fighters must have the latest training in detecting both commercial and weaponized substances and emergency rescue and evacuation techniques.

The level of training needed across the nation was demonstrated in May 2010 when New York City fire fighters used their HazMat expertise to detect and thwart what would have been a devastating car bomb attack in Times Square. We need new regulations that enable fire fighters everywhere to have similar success when the next incident hits.

The time is now for a new system that makes the nation’s chemical storage facilities safer and more secure.

Schaitberger is general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.