Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion: Did First Responders Have Proper Hazardous Material Fire Training?

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To be certified at the basic level, or a firefighter 1 certification, the association recommends 300 hours of training, which covers protective clothing and equipment, self-contained breathing apparatus, putting out building fires and properly identifying fires involving hazardous material, including ammonia, as well as assessing risks and potential outcomes.

Hazardous material fires are treated with water or a fire retardant foam, depending on the chemical, but normally firefighters will call in their regional hazmat team.

Chris Barron, the executive director of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association of Texas, said the association's records showed that every firefighter on the West Fire Department's roster was certified "at some level."

According to Barron, the roster shows that 13 firefighters had been granted a level 1 certification, and five additional firefighters had gone through the basic training and taken the certification test. Eleven firefighters were listed as not having basic training yet, but Barron said it could still mean they had started the training. The remaining four had training beyond a level 1.

"There is no doubt that there were trained people on that," Barron said, referring to the plant fire. "It was just one of the unfortunate deals where no one could have predicted what was going to happen."

The Fire Marshals' Association of Texas sets up standards for training, Barron said, but local jurisdictions decide how many firefighters and at what certification level they need to protect their community.

For example, departments in rural areas might decide most of their firefighters only need to be certified at the introductory level because there are few buildings in the area, Barron said.

In a town like West, which is near a chemical plant, departments might require their firefighters to have additional hazmat training and certification, of which the Texas association does not keep track, Barron said.

In McLennan County, where West is located, the McLennan Community College Firefighter's Academy offers a career firefighter training program.

Stephen Cook, the program's chief training officer, said aspiring career firefighters who go through the program are trained to deal with pressurized container fires, silo fires and dust fires. They are also trained in recognizing hazardous chemical fires, but few even at the advanced level ever experience a major disaster like the West Fertilizer Plant explosion.

"Most people in their entire careers don't see an incident like that," Cook said.

Generically, in situations with a large pressurized container, firefighters have to make a decision whether to cool the container or evacuate the area, and many factors go into that decision. Some are determined by how many people are in the area and how easy it would be to get them out. Nursing homes, like the one that was near the West plant, are difficult to evacuate, Cook said.

"You try to make a call of, 'We can cool that tank down and keep it from exploding or we are going to withdrawal,'" he said. "Depending on how intense the heat is, you don't have time to make that call."

Barron and Cook declined to speculate on who and how the West fire department responded to the plant fire, as neither of them were at the incident, except to praise the first responders' efforts.

"I think were this incident to happen in a small town in Texas or other populous city, you would have probably seen the same devastating effect of the explosion and unfortunately the loss of lives no matter where it was," Barron said.

In the West plant fire situation, Cook said the first responders would have had mere seconds to decide what to do and it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine how much time it would take to put a plan into action.

"Sometimes you show up and something happens really fast," he said. "You don't always know how long you have to make that decision because when that rupture takes place, it takes place suddenly. Sometimes there are warning signs and sometimes there are not."

ABC News' David Kerley contributed to this report.

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