Hazmat conference to stress preparation: Topics include corporate readiness, Katrina lessons

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Organizers of the Indiana Hazardous Materials & Environmental Safety Conference are hoping Hurricane Katrina’s demonstration of mass destruction will be a wake-up call for businesses and communities ill prepared for disaster.

Corporate participation in the 18-year-old conference has waned a bit in recent years as hazardous and safety planning became more standardized. Some companies have become too detached after outsourcing their emergency preparation to consultants, said Stephen Nash, chairman of the Indiana Forum for Environmental Safety, which sponsors the June 6-7 conference at Valle Vista Conference Center in Greenwood.

“There are fewer people [inside companies] who are specialized in hazardous materials,” Nash said. “… I’m hoping that the conference is going to be a call to communities and industry to say, ‘OK, we can’t rely on somebody from the outside all of the time.'”

Not that there’s anything wrong with consultants-Nash is senior vice president in the crisis-consulting practice at New York-based Marsh & McLennan Cos. The retired Eli Lilly and Co. officer was recruited to the practice by Ambassador Paul Bremer, who formerly was the civilian administrator of Iraq.

But company insiders also need to think about emergency contingencies, Nash said, such as what happens in the case of a widespread disaster.

For companies in New Orleans that stored essential supplies there, chances are they weren’t able to reach them after Hurricane Katrina flooded about 80 percent of New Orleans last year.

The same preparations need to be made for an organization’s emergency facilities to be used during a crisis. Some of New York City’s operations were below the World Trade Center, rendering them useless after terrorists brought down the towers in 2001. A lot of companies house such facilities somewhere on their corporate campus, Nash said, but remote locations should be far away from potential disaster locations yet still accessible.

What can go wrong in Indiana? While tornadoes are the biggest natural threat, it’s not implausible that a truck on Interstate 70 or a train moving through downtown could rupture and produce a cloud of toxic gas. Companies need a way to quickly shut off their ventilation systems that pull in fresh air-something that would take some doing in a high-rise building.

What’s wrong with just running? Winds can shift. Traffic jams. Vehicles can stall in the hazardous vapors. Some gas isn’t visible. And many communities simply aren’t designed for mass evacuation.

“That’s why we’re very conscious about not [automatically] saying ‘evacuate.’ Evacuation is not without risks,” said Bill Beranek, of the Indiana Environmental Institute and chair of the Marion County Local Emergency Planning Committee.

So some emergency planners now are more likely to consider, in the case of non-explosive gasses, the “shelter in place” approach. It includes reducing sources of air into a building-sometimes using the much-pilloried “duct tape” method of sealing doors.

Societal trends also are requiring planners to change their ways. The deaf and blind have always posed communication challenges during emergencies-now add to the list the growing number of Spanish-speaking individuals.

Conversely, the dregs of society-think druggies who build meth labs-are posing problems. One of the sessions at the conference deals with how to dismantle the potentially explosive homemade refineries.

Beranek challenges companies that have hazardous materials on site to continue to develop contingency plans. For example, they should identify especially vulnerable facilities, such as nursing homes, that are nearby.

Businesses also should consider ways to alert the community, such as a warning system that dials the phone numbers of residents and gives them a recorded message about the incident.

Emergency response organizations have plenty of their own work to do.

One thing Katrina demonstrated was how local political leaders, such as mayors, can make a situation worse.

“What happened down there is the elected officials grabbed hold of the reins and never let go,” Beranek said.

So many responders now are preparing to work in self-sufficient teams that don’t rely on orders from on high. Marion County teams saw the benefit of that approach when they went to Louisiana to assist after Katrina. Without any official orders, they coordinated with a number of other local units on the scene and went to work.

Another changing paradigm: Working with emergency responders on a wider geographical basis.

The Department of Homeland Security, recognizing that disasters can have more a regional impact than just a county or two, is emphasizing the concept. Fire departments have long had mutual-aid agreements to assist each other, but the reach now needs to be extended and involve many more organizations, from fire departments to hospitals, security officials said.

Hazmat mania

What: Indiana Hazardous Materials & Environmental Safety Conference When: June 6-7 Where: Valle Vista Country Club and Conference Center, Greenwood Sponsor: Indiana Forum for Environmental Safety Sample topics: drinking water safety, emergency law for prosecutors, evacuation issues, Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Hurricane Katrina lessons, meth lab dismantling, and transportation security More information: www.ifesconf.orgor 722-7770 Source: Indiana Forum for Environmental Safety

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