No call is ever “routine”.
It is not uncommon for hazmat technicians to respond to facilities in their response area that they have become familiar with over time; especially to those facilities that offer unique hazards or exceptionally hazardous processes. After all, that is the purpose of pre-incident planning, conducting site familiarization tours, and participating in joint training with plant personnel. Although these actions are meant to develop situational awareness and prepare responders for handling calls at these facilities, it is not uncommon for those participating in these events to develop a false sense of security. What may seem initially like a routine call, can quickly morph into something completely unexpected and result in catastrophic consequences.
The Newton Massachusetts Fire Department and the H. C. Starck, Inc. plant shared a very good working relationship. Over the years, plant employees educated members of the Newton Fire Department on the hazardous materials used at the plant, they offered the fire department familiarization tours, and they provided them information on the proper procedures for extinguishing minor sodium fires. Previous responses to the plant had resulted in no unusual problems and were easily handled by fire department and plant personnel.
On October 25, 1993, at 2131 hours the Newton Fire Department was dispatched to the H.C. Starck, Inc. plant for a reported explosion with fire and injuries. Upon arrival, companies found smoke coming from the building, but no obvious sign of an explosion or fire. Incident command (IC) was set-up and fire department personnel met with plant employees to determine the scope of the situation and the location of the fire. Although there didn’t appear to be one single plant employee in charge of the situation, the IC was told by several employees that it was a fire involving approximately 100 pounds of sodium and that water shouldn’t be used as an extinguishing agent; instead, plant employees told the IC that salt should be used, and that there were multiple large salt containers available throughout the building. Unfortunately however, plant employees failed to tell the IC that there could be water in the area of the sodium fire due to previous wet-washing operations that had been conducted earlier that evening.
Feeling comfortable that they would be able to handle this situation by relying on their past knowledge of the plant and their previous success in extinguishing minor sodium fires, three companies (eleven firefighters) made entry into the fire area wearing standard structural firefighting gear and SCBA. The crews were able to easily extinguish the small sodium fires scattered around the area using the salt that was available, however they also noticed a relatively large amount of burning sodium still in a drum in the center of the room. Two lieutenants entered the fire room and using a shovel found in the same room of the fire; one of the lieutenants scooped a shovel full of salt from the container and began to apply it to the burning sodium in the drum. As soon as the shovel full of salt was applied to the burning drum a violent explosion occurred. Both lieutenants that were in the fire room were splashed with the molten sodium virtually from head to toe. Six other firefighters and a third lieutenant who were located outside of the fire room, and had been involved in moving the salt containers from other parts of the building, were burned by the combination of the fireball and the spray of molten sodium from the explosion.
The personal protective equipment worn by the crews (structural firefighting gear) offered no protection from the molten sodium. When the molten metal was splashed on their gear, it burned through the protective layers of their gear to their skin. Once the molten sodium reached the inner layers of their gear and the skin, it reacted with the moisture from perspiration to form sodium hydroxide which contributed to the injuries sustained. In all, eleven members of the fire department were transported to area hospitals and burn centers. Of the eleven that were transported, eight were admitted and three were treated and released. The two lieutenants that were in the room with the drum were admitted in extremely critical condition.
The in-depth post incident analysis and investigation of this incident revealed many take-aways and “lessons learned”. One of the biggest take-aways that the investigation revealed was the best course of action for this incident would have been simply, inaction. Even though the Newton Fire Department was well prepared to handle smaller incidents involving sodium fires, unless they receive specific training and utilize specialized equipment and protective clothing, most municipal fire departments are unequipped to mitigate a sodium fire of this size. Conducting a thorough risk-benefit analysis is the key in determining what action, if any, should be taken. In this particular incident, plant employees never told the fire department about the wet-washing operations that were conducted in the fire room earlier that same evening. The investigation revealed that the shovel that was found in the room, and used by the lieutenant to apply the salt, was possibly still wet with water which led to the violent sodium explosion. The evaluation of the risks and potential consequences that was conducted during the post incident analysis revealed that the best plan would have been to simply take no action.
It is easy for fire department members and hazardous materials technicians to believe that they are well prepared for incidents at facilities like H.C. Starck, Inc., however no incident should ever be viewed as “routine”. Pre-incident planning, plant familiarization tours, and participating in joint training with plant employees all help to prepare responders, but adequate information gathering and a proper risk-benefit analysis (including proper protective clothing selection) should be done to help guide the operational plan and lessen the risk for all that are involved.