Volunteer first responders still vulnerable after West explosion

Small flags adorn the base of wooden cross outside the West VFD, May 2016. The marker bears the names of the first responders who died in the West, TX fertilizer plant explosion in April 2013 (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)
Small flags adorn the base of wooden cross outside the West VFD, May 2016. The marker bears the names of the first responders who died in the West, TX fertilizer plant explosion in April 2013 (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)

WEST, Texas (KXAN) – Vulnerabilities remain among first responders at small agencies in every corner of Texas when they’re called out to facilities that stockpile explosive chemicals, according to the Emergency Management Coordinator of McLennan County. That’s the same community where 12 area fire fighters lost their lives in a massive chemical plant explosion the evening of April 2013 in the small railway town of West.

“Most of the firefighters in Texas work for volunteer departments, Frank Patterson said Wednesday. “I understand we have training standards. Often though, what you have is the rookie or the guy on for six months who may not have had the training yet [on how to access and interpret so-called Tier II lists of companies that store certain amounts of hazardous chemicals].”

State and federal laws require companies provide a chemical inventory to the state (TCEQ), fire departments and local emergency planning committees. The Tier II reports fall under the state’s ‘community right-to-know program.’

When the members of the West Volunteer Fire Department left their fire station on that spring evening in 2013 they had no idea the burning fertilizer plant was a time bomb. Wednesday, the ATF and State Fire Marshal Office concluded the cause of the fire that led to the explosion of stored fertilizer was incendiary, meaning criminal in nature. They call the investigation ongoing.

With the risk of further miscommunication high on his priority list in 2015, Patterson helped draft a bill to give volunteer first responders a crucial heads-up.

A quick call to a local 911 call center would tell them if the address where they were responding was on the state’s so-called Tier II list. The bill died in committee due to concerns over cost.

Patterson vows to try again next session.

“If we can convey that, if it’s police, fire, EMS it doesn’t matter, now they [can] have an opportunity to say ‘step back,’” Patterson says.

Soon after the blast, Patterson also led a project to get the county’s existing Tier II lists online on an interactive webpage. It allows anyone moving to the area to easily see where the businesses which could have dangerous chemicals on their property are located.

KXAN checked and there are no such online lists in Hays, Travis or Williamson counties.

While TCEQ is under no legal obligation to release any Tier II lists after a 2014 Texas attorney general ruling putting Homeland Security concerns over the community’s right-to-know, the law requires individual companies to give their chemical inventory lists to anyone who asks.

Media outlets which have requested the documents have run into some opposition since the ruling. Either companies ignored the requests or have possibly interpreted the AG ruling to include themselves.

In McClennan County, Patterson says he will release any chemical inventory to anyone requesting one in the interest of transparency. Not all county governments are as open.
Patterson, a veteran emergency operations manager and one-time volunteer and paid firefighter, still gets emotional when recalling the toll West had on his community on a quiet spring night in 2013.

“I had people I know that died the blast. I’m from this community. It’s a tough deal.”

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