Volunteer firefighters in West were trained, prepared for plant fire, officials say

Posted Monday, Apr. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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WEST -- The firefighters were volunteers, charged with protecting a city of 2,800.

But, although the city was tiny, it had grown right up against a plant that stored hazardous chemicals.

When that plant, which sat just outside the West city limits, caught fire Wednesday night, some 16 or 17 firefighters rushed in.

Despite their volunteer status, West Mayor Tommy Muska said, the men were trained to handle the situation.

"Cody Dragoo, the foreman out at the plant, was a fireman," said Muska, himself one of the city's 29 firefighters. "He knew that plant better than anybody. He knew the dangers. He knew the chemicals there. Did we realize it could cause such an explosion? Yes, we knew it was volatile."

The 50-year-old fertilizer plant stored 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, according to the latest records, the same chemical used to build the deadly bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Other flammable and potentially toxic chemicals were also stored on the grounds.

Available documents indicate that neither the owners nor city officials had told anyone that the plant could explode. The worst scenario was reported to the state as a 10-minute ammonia leak that wouldn't hurt anyone.

Muska, who said he was in the plant about three hours before the fire, said he has no idea whether reports about the amount of chemicals in the plant are accurate.

He said no one could have prepared for the wave of death and destruction that came with Wednesday's thunderous explosion, which killed 15 people, including Dragoo and four other West volunteer firefighters.

"A fire just started somewhere and it blew up," said Muska, who was headed to help when the plant blew. "Why? I'm not going to answer that. I don't have any clue. We didn't go in there with our eyes closed. I can tell you that. The men that went in there to fight that, to put it out, knew exactly what they were doing."

In Texas, professional firefighters must meet training requirements set by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection, and many big-city departments frequently undergo specialized training based on particular hazards.

In Fort Worth, for example, firefighters and members of the Office of Emergency Management participate in disaster drills four to six times a year, said Lt. Tim Hardeman, a spokesman for the Fort Worth Fire Department.

In addition, Hardeman said, "companies that use hazardous materials in their processes also have to have minimum-level training, including drills."

Requirements for volunteer firefighters, however, are set by local jurisdictions.

"In volunteer fire departments, you might have a fire department that might only have three calls a month and most of those might only be for grass fires," said Chris Barron, executive director with the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association of Texas. "So the local jurisdictions will set requirements based on their needs."

West is one of the volunteer departments whose members obtain certification through the State Firemen's Association, Barron said.

Twenty of the 29 firefighters were certified or were in the process of being certified to Firefighter 1 standards, which means they were trained in hazardous materials, rescue operations and emergency management, among other areas.

The remaining nine were not listed as having been certified, but they could have been new recruits or working on their certification, Barron said.

Muska said the firefighters had undergone training, both locally and at Texas A&M University, to learn how to deal with chemicals and other hazards. They'd walked the plant's grounds, he said, and, of course, Dragoo was a member of the department. In addition, they had previously worked a chemical leak at the plant, he said.

The department has held disaster drills, Muska said, "but not of this magnitude."

'There were only five

that walked out'

Volunteer firefighter Kevin Maler said he was rushing to the station to pick up gear Wednesday night when he got a call from a former employee of the plant, who asked what was going on.

"I told him what was burning," Maler said Monday. "He said all those guys need to get out of there. He said you need to be a quarter-mile away if that thing blows."

Maler said he stopped at the plant, where firefighters had been working for some 20 minutes outside the building, trying to keep the blaze from spreading.

He told one of the firefighters to get everyone out of the area, then proceeded to the fire station.

"Within a minute, it blew," he said. "There wasn't enough time. ... They were trying to back the truck out when it blew."

Maler said he was about a mile away when the explosion occurred, cracking his pickup's windshield.

"My brother was on the scene, so you can imagine what was going through my mind at the time," Maler said.

He rushed to the scene to find his brother, fellow firefighter David Maler, walking away from the blast site -- his clothes blown off but alive.

"Out of the 16 or 17 that were on the scene, there was only five that walked out, and he was one of them," Maler said.

The state fire marshal's office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives continue to investigate the cause of the fire and explosion, as well as the department's response and just how aware the city officials were of the dangers posed by the fertilizer plan in their back yard.

Kelly Kistner, assistant state fire marshal, wouldn't comment on the tactics used by the firefighters other than to say that they are part of the investigation.

Maler said that, although fighters had discussed the hazards that the plant posed, it was not a concern that weighed heavily on him, mainly because the plant had been there so long with no major problems.

Built in 1962, the plant had once been surrounded by open fields, until houses, including his parents', began popping up in the early to mid-1970s. Eight years ago, Maler built his own house about a quarter-mile away.

"The town grew around the fertilizer plant," Maler said. "... I mean, you know, it's just kind of like you can have a train going through your neighborhood and it can have anhydrous ammonia on it and could kill a bunch of people, but there's people living all around that railroad track."

Fellow volunteer firefighter James Miller said the plant was viewed more as an essential part to the community's livelihood.

"We're a farming community, and they depend on it," Miller said.

A changed image

Volunteers make up 77 percent of the state's fire departments and 70 to 75 percent of departments across the nation.

"There's just not enough money to have full-paid fire departments everywhere," Barron said. "Everything costs too much money."

And while volunteers often do not get the same respect as their paid counterparts, officials say the training that they undergo makes them a vital part of saving lives and property.

"They've kind of had this black eye on them; that they were a bunch of country boys, but that really has changed over the past several decades," Barron said.

Miller said that when he joined the West Volunteer Fire Department 23 years ago, training consisted largely of watching videos.

"It's totally different now," he said. "There's more work to it. They want you to take off from your regular job to go to school for a week here and there. Most volunteers can't afford to do that."

Barron said it is not uncommon for volunteer fire departments to train for the hazards in their communities.

A chief himself of the Manchaca Volunteer Fire Department, south of Austin, Barron said his department conducts scenario drills and training, sometimes taking "field trips for lack of a better word" to facilities to conduct tours and meet the manager.

"It all depends on how much time and how dedicated the fire department is to their training and their surroundings," he said. "Looking at the information I have, I would say [West firefighters] were probably pretty in tune to their surroundings and the hazards in their area."

Bryan Jamison, chief of the Briar Oaks Volunteer Fire Department in Johnson County, said his department undergoes the certification programs of both the SFFMA and the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. He said about half of his 30-member department is certified through TCFP, "which means they can walk out my door and walk into a paid fire department right now."

Jamison also said that emergency plans are vital for all fire departments.

"It's called pre-planning, and it happens in the volunteer business, too," Jamison said.

Jamison said his district is in the flight path of Spinks Airport and is home to numerous natural gas pipelines, as well as storage and processing facilities.

"Plus, we have a train going right through the middle of it," Jamison said. "We just had a derailment like three years ago, so we had to respond to that."

While questions remain about what caused the fire and explosion, Mayor Muska said it is too soon for the city to answer some of the tough questions.

"Right now, it's more about healing," he said. "We have ... a half or a little over a third of our department that is in the hospital or that's injured to the point they can't function."

Deanna Boyd,

817-390-7655

Twitter: @deannaboyd

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