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Fools Rush In: What Do We Really Expect in an Emergency?

Posted on August 25th, 2017 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence

Fools rush in

“For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.”  —Alexander Pope

One evening very early in my career I was working in the pilot plant.  There were people elsewhere in the facility, but I was in the pilot plant by myself. The reaction ran in a solvent at a temperature above the solvent’s flash point. I opened the hatch of the reactor to look in and a spark, probably from static in my hair, ignited the mixture. As a vision of the plant burning to the ground and all of my co-workers lining up at the unemployment office flashed through my head, I flipped off the switch for ventilation so it would stop pulling vapor out into the hood, and used a CO2 fire extinguisher, and then a second, and then a third, to put the fire out.

It ended up being a very late night. I called my new wife to let her know, just in case the fire department ended up responding and the incident got reported on the small town radio station. They didn’t. I was tempted not to tell anyone, but I had three empty fire extinguishers. My supervisor didn’t congratulate me for putting out the fire. Instead, he was angry that I had let a fire start in the first place, and that we had the inconvenience of recharging three fire extinguishers. He wasn’t angry with me for staying to fight the fire. As far as he was concerned, that was the least I could do.

Evolving Expectations

My expectations have evolved since then. I’ve had the big red Superman tattoo on my chest removed. I remind employees, trainees, students, and clients that the only responsible policy is “no heroes.” When I review emergency action plans (EAPs), I look for them to say “In an emergency, employees are to evacuate and as soon as it is safe to do so, alert the plant that there are an emergency and call for an evacuation.” I also look for EAPs to say that employees are only to use fire extinguishers to fight incipient fires and only when they feel that they can do so without putting themselves in danger. When defining an incipient fire, I look for an EAP to give a trash can fire as an example and explain that an incipient fire is one that can be put out with two fire extinguishers or less.

Some Recent Training

Not too long ago, I was leading process safety training. After almost a week together, the people in the training were pretty comfortable with one another.  One of the last topics of the training was an emergency response and emergency action plans.  I asked the gathered group, mostly operations and maintenance supervisors and managers but some safety professionals, what they expected to happen in an emergency.  Someone offered the textbook answer:  “People will evacuate and leave the emergency to professional first responders.”  There was an awkward silence as everyone in the room considered that answer.  Finally, I asked, “Really?”

No one was quite ready to contradict the textbook answer, but there were people who were willing to offer stories they “had heard about.”

Removing an Alligator

A plant on the Gulf Coast had a problem with alligators.  One day an alligator found its way into the plant and settled in for a nap in one of the maintenance shops.  Key work orders were not being completed.  Word of the alligator quickly spread and eventually a unit manager made his way to the shop to see this alligator for himself.  It was gone.  “Where’d it go?”

“Oh, it’s back in the bayou,” was the reply.

“How’d that happen?” the unit manager asked.  The two maintenance technicians and the maintenance supervisor looked at each other but didn’t say anything. The unit manager shook his head and walked out.  This story, too, quickly spread and it soon became common knowledge that the three maintenance personnel had picked the alligator up and carried it back outside the fence.  There was also a work order to fix the gap in the fence that was quickly completed. It was only as the story circulated that a consensus emerged that picking up an alligator was a foolish thing to do and certain people were lucky they didn’t have an amputation to show for their efforts.

Fisticuffs with the Fire Chief

Another plant had completed a pre-fire plan and determined that in certain process areas, the steam blanket they used as fire suppression had the best chance of putting any fires out should they happen and that a response with a fire ax and water spray was more likely to make the fire worse, not better.  They had worked through this with the chief of the local volunteer fire department.  While no fire is trivial, they all felt pretty good about their plan.  In an emergency, the fire department would come to observe the fire but there was to be no direct intervention.  Either the plant fire suppression system would succeed or it would not, but the plant management and the local fire department had agreed that as long as the evacuation was complete, there was nothing about the plant that was worth risking the death of a firefighter.

A few months after the local fire chief retired, early on a Sunday morning, the plant actually had the fire for which they had planned.  The local fire department arrived, led by the new chief, and crashed through the barrier arm gate to get to the burning unit.  They were already running hoses to the plant hydrants when the production manager, who had been called out when the fire started, raced up in a golf cart to stop them.

Soon the two men were shouting and insisting that the other should not try to tell them how to do their job. As the story was told, the two men would have come to blows if they had not been restrained by their respective colleagues.

The fire department did stand down and the plant’s fire suppression system did do its job, but relations between that plant and its local fire department are still tense to this day.

Fighting an ‘Incipient’ Fire

A tank truck pulled into the tank farm of a third plant to deliver a load of a flammable liquid.  Before the driver could get out of the cab, the tractor’s engine caught fire.  The material man alerted the plant on the radio and grabbed a fire extinguisher.  Three other employees also responded, each grabbing one or two fire extinguishers on their way.  Between the driver’s fire extinguisher and the plant fire extinguishers, it took seven to put out the truck fire.

“I tried to imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t put out that fire.  The truck would have gone up, and then each tank, one after the other,” the storyteller concluded.

“Yeah.  And the five of you with them,” replied another person in the training, not with malice but with sympathy.

All four employees who fought that truck fire received a letter of commendation from the regional vice president.

‘I’d Go Fight It’

Finally, someone in the training offered that if there was a fire in their unit, they would go fight it.  “I wouldn’t expect anyone else to, but if it was in my unit, I’d have to fight it.”  This unit manager, young and charismatic, had started at the plant as an operator and had been promoted several times, and his comment surprised no one.

Someone else in the training commented.  “You wouldn’t expect anyone else to, but you are a leader and the others would follow you.  And the sad thing is, if someone got hurt, it wouldn’t be you, it would be one of the others, and you would have to live with that for the rest of your life.”

Enough Said

After that discussion, there was not much I had to add.  Rather than continue through the material I had prepared, I called for an early lunch.  I learned later that there had been some intense discussions at lunch.

What Do You Really Expect?

Consider your Emergency Action Plan.  Like most, it probably adopts a “No Heroes” approach.  Is that what you really expect?  First, is that what you really want?  Or do you expect for employees to read that in the EAP and hear that in the EAP training, but actually ignore it in a real emergency, instead of stepping up and showing some heroism?  Regardless, of what you really want, what do you really believe employees will do?  How many of your co-workers are secretly wearing superhero costumes under their flame-retardant coveralls?

During an emergency is never the best time to figure out how to respond to the emergency.  The time to figure out how to respond to an emergency is before the emergency.  That’s why we have EAPs.  If you believe the EAP is correct, then sell it, so that your co-workers believe it, too.  If you don’t believe the EAP is correct, then work to correct it.  Know what you expect, from yourself and from others, and then act accordingly.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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