April 18, 2012— -- In the wake of a deadly fire and chemical explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant near Waco, which left as many as 15 people dead, questions have been raised over whether the local all-volunteer fire department were trained enough to properly handle a hazardous-material fire.
The West, Texas, fire department, who were the first responders on the scene Wednesday at the West Fertilizer Plant, initially received a call that there was a fire at the plant. While fighting the fire, an explosion occurred, sending at least 180 people to hospitals, flattening buildings, prompting widespread evacuations and leaving as many as five to 15 people feared dead.
The West Fire Department has 33 firefighters on call, including the town's mayor, Tommy Muska, all of whom are volunteers. Some responders were believed unaccounted for after the blast, according to local officials, who have not released their identities.
Texas officials will not comment on what may have caused the massive explosion, but said tanks holding anhydrous ammonia and ammonia nitrate were on site at the plant. When pressurized tanks heat up, such as in a fire, the liquid ammonia turns to gas vapor and expands, which could cause the tank to explode. Depending on the nature of the tank and the chemical, water can cause a similar reaction.
"A lot of people don't like putting water and ammonium nitrate together," said Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd. "Usually when you mix those two you have to have something that confines it, in order to make it a dangerous product. I'll tell you a lot of firefighters will use their number one tool, which is water, in a hazardous materials chemical situation like that to cool the surrounding environments, to cool those other tanks, to keep them from cooking off or exploding."
All-volunteer fire departments are rather common in the United States and are largely determined by the size of the community protected. According to the National Fire Protection Association's most recent estimates, there are more than 1.1 million active firefighters in the U.S., and of those, 756,400 are volunteer.
Ninety-four percent of volunteer firefighters are protecting communities with a population of less than 25,000, the association reported, and of those departments, about half are located in small, rural areas that protect a population of less than 2,500. West has a population of 2,800.
The National Fire Protection Association requires all firefighters, at minimum, to complete the introductory training to respond to calls. After that, the level of training differs between paid and volunteer firefighters.
In the state of Texas, paid career firefighters complete about 500 hours of training over four levels -- introduction, basic, immediate and advanced -- usually through an academy-type program. Volunteer firefighters are trained and certified through the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association, which keeps track of member certification, of which the West fire department participates.
The Texas association recommends firefighters complete at least 78 hours of training in multiple fire suppression techniques to qualify for the introductory level. Those firefighters can respond to grass fires and assist outside of buildings but cannot enter buildings.
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.