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AMMONIUM NITRATE CONCERNS ADDRESSED

BY PHILLIP WILIAMS

GILMER--State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy told an audience of area firefighters, emergency personnel, and business representatives how to try to prevent the type of ammonium nitrate explosion and fire that killed 15 people in the city of West last year.

Connealy also discussed what to do if such an event occurs, and firefighter safety in general, as one of three participants in a 2-hour, 6-minute presentation. The other speakers among the approximately 25 persons present included Asst. State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner and Alan Dillon of the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service.

Representatives of the Gilmer, Pritchett and West Mountain fire departments, and of the Texas Dept. of Public Safety, attended. Connealy said his office is making presentations in all Texas counties where ammonium nitrate is known to be stored because he wanted to "make sure that we learn from" the explosion of the West Fertilizer Plant.

The State Fire Marshal said ammonium nitrate is stored at one location in Gladewater and one in Longview and at one business in Upshur County. 

On storing the material, he said, "It's hard to get in trouble following the best practices. . .We need to make sure people have that basic knowledge."

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is a source for such information, and it recommends a "one-hour fire barrier" from where ammonium nitrate is stored, and having fire extinguishers, said Connealy. "We've got to keep fire from ammonium nitrate," which is a component for explosives and an oxidizer, he pointed out.

Other safety recommendations include storing the material in a non-combustible structure which has sprinklers, he said. Had the facility in West had sprinklers, the fire never would have reached the ammonium nitrate, he said.

Earlier, Connealy and Kistner discussed the April 17, 2013 fertilizer plant explosion that rocked the small town of West, killing 10 firefighters, two first responders from an Emergency Medical Technician class, and three civilians, as well as causing more than $100 million in damages.

Connelay said investigation into the blaze is ongoing and "we may never know what completely caused the fire." Earlier, Kistner said a media report that a rail car loaded with ammonium nitrate caused it was false.

Kistner also said that out of respect to the victims' families, the men would not discuss operations and tactics used there because the report on the incident has not yet been released. But noting that state and federal agencies dealt with the tragedy, he said, "Your town could double (in population) overnight with just the number of responders."

"We counted 100 pieces of apparatus sitting in an open field," Kistner said. He also said some 30 law enforcement agencies were involved in dealing with the disaster, and that officers stood post 24 hours a day, seven days weekly, because the site was considered a crime scene.

Kistner also warned that emergency personnel must deal with citizens who cannot safely go back to their homes for a time after such an incident. He additionally said regular press briefings must be held, and that two a day were held in West.

Connealy noted citizens can type in their zip code on the internet to see if ammonium nitrate is stored in their area.

In discussing safety for firefighters, Dillon cautioned against making decisons based on emotion and said, "Keep your eyes open and your ears up." 

He said sometimes, the proper course is to evacuate citizens and let something burn.

Connealy became animated in recounting incidents in which Texas firefighters have died, and in counseling against certain actions. He said firefighters need to calculate "risk versus gain" of possible action at a fire scene, and decide if there is anyone "viable to save. What's the glory in rescuing a dead body? They're already dead."

The State Fire Marshal also said fire departments need to develop physical fitness standards since the number one cause of death of firefighters while fighting blazes is natural causes--heart attacks and strokes.