Community Collaboration: How Local Fire Departments, First Responders, and Business/Industry Can Form Partnerships
Joseph Kitchen, Bath Twp. Fire Department (Lima, Ohio)
When our new recruits show up on their first day fresh out of the fire academy, they are prepared for most of our common routine emergencies. We can feel pretty confident to put them on a hose line and send them through the front door of a single-family, wood frame dwelling to extinguish a standard kitchen fire. More than likely, they can hop off the truck, grab the extrication tools and begin to remove injured victims who are trapped in a motor vehicle which has sustained heavy damage in a crash. These new fire fighters are CPR certified, trained to drive and operate equipment and apparatus, and they usually understand the basics of fire behavior. However, as you begin to look around your department’s service area, you should identify facilities that present unique hazards which most new recruits have not only failed to receive training on, but may not even realize exist. Across the nation there are steel mills, power plants, chemical facilities, and thousands of other businesses chocked full of hazards both known and unknown.
Our small fire department is located in Northwest Ohio. Bath Township is a suburb of the city of Lima, which is known for a rich history of industry and manufacturing. Located in our township, just a few miles away from our station is the Ford Motor Company Lima Engine Plant. If you drive a Ford Taurus, Explorer, or a new Ford F 150 pickup truck, there is a good chance the engine was built right here in our community. If you head in the opposite direction, you will find a major Procter & Gamble Manufacturing facility and distribution center. Well know products such as Tide and Downy are made here and leave the facility in semi-trucks by the hundreds each day. In addition to these major industrial complexes, we also have a nationally known auto manufacturing driveshaft plant, and automotive parts painting and coating plant, a very large plastics manufacturer and warehouse facility, a major commercial bakery, and several more mid to small size commercial manufacturing plants and warehouses.
These businesses provide a much-needed economic tax base in our community, and employ thousands of local residents. We are very proud to have them here, and want to do our very best to provide the highest level of emergency services to ensure their long-term viability. However, each facility presents unique hazards which not only put their employees at risk, but heighten the risk for our responding firefighters, and in some instances, certain emergencies could negatively impact the surrounding community and environment. Therefore, we have taken a very proactive approach to engage all of these businesses and industries on a regular basis to ensure that in the event of an emergency, we are adequately prepared to respond and mitigate all hazards safely and appropriately. We don’t want any surprises. When a fire occurs, we want to have visited the facility numerous times and be well aware of the building and its surroundings.
Here are six tips to successful collaboration between your local fire department and industries in your service area:
- Get past the front gate. - Many of these facilities are massive, spread out upon many acres. Multiple buildings, tank farms, warehouses, huge parking lots, can all look very intimidating from the road. Larger companies usually employ round the clock security who monitor cameras and keep a very close eye on every entry point of the facility. With today's post 9/11 heightened homeland security efforts, getting into these facilities is not as easy as it used to be. The days of the local fire department rolling up to the front door and walking in, are most likely over. Fire department officials need to break the ice with plant management and safety personnel to create a comfortable relationship by which the fire department is always welcome at these facilities. The tone of the relationship should be set early with a total focus on community safety, firefighter safety, and employee safety. Management must know that you are not there to nitpick every burned out exit light or misplaced fire extinguisher when you arrive. You must work diligently to show them that your visits to the facility are in both parties best interest. In our township, we have gone from being held at the front gate until management comes out to see us, to being waived in by security at any time of the day or night. We have developed relationships based on trust, mutual respect, and admiration for each of our missions. The ultimate goal is for these businesses to consider you and your fire department a true partner within their operation.
- Build Strong Relationships - Begin by getting to know key people within the facility. You may not be able to waltz right into the plant manager’s or CEO’s office, but there's a really good chance that you can develop a great rapport with maintenance supervisors, security leaders, and safety engineers. Let them know that you want to learn more about the facility and what they do. Invite them to your fire station so they can see your facility, equipment, and apparatus. Look for opportunities to work together whenever possible. Team up on civic, and community events. All of these things combined will lead to stronger relationships between both parties. Invite them to lunch on a regular basis, offer to be a guest at their weekly, or monthly safety meetings. Tell them you want to observe evacuation drills, and other safety related events within the plant. If they have an internal fire brigade or emergency response team, it is vital that your department join forces with them and work closely together. The leaders of these teams should meet with fire department officials on a regular basis. Most likely, they will be apprehensive at first, especially if there hasn’t been much dialogue in the past. However, after a period of time, this relationship will seem normal and both parties will begin to see many benefits.
- Learn the Business - I don't expect your firefighters to be trained to walk out on the assembly line and begin working alongside of plant employees. However, all members of the organization should have a good handle on what the business does. The firefighters should understand what raw materials are being offloaded into the facility. They should have knowledge of the products that are being made. Fire department officials should also have a high level of respect for the impact of business interruption during emergencies. We must be aware that industry leaders are under a tremendous amount of pressure to keep the facility open. We need to implement a unified command system to work closely to mitigate the emergency in a fast, safe, and efficient manner, but also be aware of the need to keep the business operating if at all possible. Whenever possible, fire department personnel should tour the facility, talk to employees, and observe manufacturing processes. Not only can we gather vital information to use in the event of an emergency, but it also shows the business that we are truly interested in their operations. We need to know how many employees work in each area, employee census changes from shift to shift, and the basic responsibilities of all workers.
- Evaluate Hazards - Risk management is essential to effective pre planning of these special hazard facilities. Every firefighter on your department should be well aware of the worst case scenario at any particular industrial complex or manufacturing facility. Unique hazards such as utilities and power supply can themselves be significant risks for first responders. At chemical plants and refineries, the most dangerous time for first responders is when the plant is not running. Shut downs and startups as well as leaks or other process interruptions are most generally when emergencies take place. Your fire department needs to have a candid, open, and honest discussion about worst-case scenarios. Once identified, plans should be in place for response, firefighter safety, and community protection. Don’t let the business minimize the potential impact of major system failures. Advise them that be discussing these hazards now, we can be better prepared to save lives and property in the event of a disaster.
- Planning & Procedures - Once hazards have been determined, detailed plans should be in place. Generally, major commercial complexes have policies and procedures that have already been written. However, many times our departments do not have access to these plans. This information should be shared between both parties. Also, these plans to little during an actual emergency if they have spent their entire life on a shelf. Emergency response plans should be read, studied, shared, updated, and practiced on a regular basis. As our global economy rapidly changes, it is not uncommon for business and industry to be in a constant state of growth and change. Therefore, communication with these facilities, and review of these changes should take place on a regular basis. Set up meetings as necessary to talk about policies and emergency response guidelines. This dialogue should be on-going.
- Training - Training maybe one of the most important parts of a successful collaboration with local business and industry. We must get face-to-face with the employees, management, and all other interested parties on a regular basis. Fire department equipment and apparatus should respond to these facilities on a regular basis in non-emergency situations. Firefighters should be comfortable with their surroundings when behind the facility gates. The more time we can spend at our local industries in non-emergency situations, the better prepared we will be in actual emergency situations. Set up training drills and get shoulder to shoulder with employees. Develop a training schedule to hit all shifts and include as many people as possible. Bring in mutual aid departments and other public safety entities which may also be called to a true emergency. Do not miss any opportunity to train for what could be the worst day in the history of your community.
Having major industrial complexes in your community should not be a burden or a hazard. Safety and engineering have improved immensely over the years and the majority of these businesses operate in a very safe manner. However, they do present a very unusual set of hazards that if we don’t educate ourselves, we could be putting our community and our firefighters at risk.
Joseph Kitchen, OFC, is the Chief of the Bath Twp. Fire Dept. (Lima, Ohio.) He began his career in 1990 and has served as fire chief since 2002. He holds degrees in EMS and fire science, and in 2012 was named “Fire Officer of the Year” by the Ohio Dept. of Public Safety. Follow Chief Kitchen on Twitter @chiefjoekitchen and visit his department’s website at www.bathtwpfd.com.