The forgotten tragedy.. And why it matters to you

A funeral service for those killed in the West, Texas disaster was held at Baylor university and was attended by President Barack Obama. (Photo via WhiteHouse.gov).

A funeral service for those killed in the West, Texas disaster was held at Baylor University and was attended by President Barack Obama. (Photo via WhiteHouse.gov).

Last April, the nation’s emergency services were thrust into the media spotlight through a series of events. From the heroic scenes of emergency personnel running towards the exploding bombs in Boston to the heartbreaking scenes of destruction in West Texas, these events reminded us that tragedy can strike at any second– during a major event in a metropolis, or on a seemingly casual weekday afternoon in a rural town.

The Boston bombings received wall-to-wallcoverage, and like most Americans, I was glued to the media coverage as officials sought to bring the terrorists who were able to commit such heinous acts to justice.

But as a volunteer firefighter in a small town of less then 1,500 residents, I couldn’t help but feel a personal connection to those firefighters in the West Volunteer Fire Company.

The departments in our small South Jersey towns respond to hundreds of reported structure fires each year, any which could have deadly effects similar to the end result in West.

Looking throughout the area, you can easily find locations that could be the source of major threats if it were to become engulfed in flames. The devastation in West was the result of a fertilizer plant that was storing thousands of pounds of fertilizer when it combusted.

Sites here may not have the quantity of fertilizer that the West blast had, but with the dozens of golf courses, sod farms, and farming facilities in the area, we certainly have our fair share of combustible fertilizer to worry about- not to mention the plethora of chemicals that are stores at our various marinas, auto repair shops, and commercial cleaning businesses.

There are serious evacuation concerns throughout the area as well, with highly-populated areas surrounding major fire hazards, schools in close proximity to building that could become dangerous in fires, and neglected buildings and abandoned factories that could become deathtraps for emergency personnel.

There may have been very little the firefighters from West Volunteer Fire Company could have done responding to the West Fertilizer Company that day – they undoubtedly knew that fertilizer was highly explosive, and that it was only a matter of time before the fire caused the plant to decimate the surrounding area, and did their best to try and buy some time to evacuate the surrounding area.

But in order to prevent further tragedies of this magnitude, departments across the county need to become vigilant in their pre-planning, hazard identification, and code enforcement.

It became known following the explosion that local, state, and federal regulators had failed to properly inspect the West Fertilizer plant, with numerous alarming facts becoming exposed, such as the fact that the last full-plant inspect came over 25 years ago.

In addition, despite having much of the same fertilizer used by Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombings, the factory’s existence was listed was not even noted in the Department of Homeland Security’s database.

We must encourage regulatory agencies to work diligently to identify potential hazards and stockpiles, and make this information available to emergency responders so they are able to prioritize the risks and tasks required to ensure the greatest level of safety.

There are plenty of resources available to help in identifying hazards. With the new age of technology, applications on smartphones and other devices make it easy to organize information regarding locations throughout your district, and give you assistance on what you need to plan in advance. Agencies like the United States Fire Administration, FEMA and the “Everyone Goes Home” program are all great resources for planning for the worst.

When you’re sitting at your department on a rainy day, looking for something to do, pile into a truck, and hit the roads of your district. Go to local businesses, schools, homes, factories – find out what the hazards are.

Preplan for evacuating any area. Have an idea of what you’re up against if a building catches fire. Urge your local government officials to stay on top of inspections. Don’t let neglect cost a life, or a dozen.

Don’t think it can’t happen to you. Prepare for the worst, and remember how 10 volunteer firefighters in a small Texas town responded to a call much like many of our own, and never came home. Stay safe.

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