Officials team up with Milton business in disaster scenario

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Thursday, September 16, 2010
— It was a quiet, breezy morning Wednesday on Milton’s west side. Then a factory’s emergency sirens started blaring. Next, police blockaded streets, and fire crews rushed in. A local Hazmat team was close behind.

It was a chemical leak. It could have been bad. Except none of it was real.

The sudden emergency Wednesday was actually a planned training exercise at Milton chemical manufacturer Air Products Performance Manufacturing at 337 Vincent St. on the city’s west side.

Milton fire and police departments, Rock County Emergency Management and the Janesville Fire Department Level B Hazmat team worked together with crews at Air Products to simulate a response to an industrial chemical accident.

Although officials set up their mobile command post in a meeting room at the Air Products plant office, the situation felt real. Computers were running; a game plan was drawn on a marker board, and orders were being given.

Again, none of this actually happened. But here’s how it went:

10 a.m.: Plant crews at the west end of the plant site notice a rail car is leaking a small amount of a gas. It’s Ethylene Oxide, and that’s bad news.

Not only is Ethylene Oxide gas toxic by inhalation, it can cause skin burns and is so highly flammable that static electricity can cause it to explode, according to a fact sheet from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Plant managers contact Milton fire and police departments.

10:05 a.m.: Plant crews determine the wind’s speed and direction will push the gas west, away from residential areas and Milton West Elementary, a nearby school. Plant crews are able to put water on the rail car, knocking down vapors and lessening the flammability of the leaking gas while they wait for emergency crews to arrive.
10:10 a.m.: Although the leak is small and isn’t blowing toward residents, plant crews activate sirens at the plant to warn residents and people at the elementary school to get indoors.

“It’s a judgment call,” says Air Products Site Manager Greg Linder.

10:20 a.m.: Milton police and fire departments set up a mobile command post at the Air Products office. Under real conditions, command would be set away from the plant, officials said. Police and fire administrators start to form a plan, and patrol officers work to barricade city streets within a half-mile of the plant.

“We need a city map,” Milton Police Lt. John Conger suggests.

10:25 a.m.: An all-call goes out to Milton Fire Department, and officials radio for mutual aid from the Janesville Fire Department’s Hazmat team and the Rock County Sheriff’s Office.
10:30 a.m.: Fire crews arrive and study an aerial photo of the plant site. Plant workers and fire crews take additional readings for buildup of Ethylene Oxide gas around the plant site.

Crews keep water on the leaking rail car. Police brief the news media on the gas leak, and the nearby elementary school is notified. Police discuss contacting all parents in the district using Milton schools’ mass notification system.

10:45 - 10:55 a.m.: Janesville Hazmat arrives. Hazmat and fire crews determine they can keep the gas leak at ground level near the plant. Hazmat works to learn the cause of the leak and whether the chemical supplier will have to repair the rail car on site. It could take the company four hours to send out crews.

“This could be a 12-hour occupation,” Milton Fire Chief Loren Lippincott says. He requests assistance from two police and fire departments in neighboring cities.

11:05-11:30 a.m.: Hazmat learns a defective valve on the rail car caused the leak and that it will have to be fixed by the chemical supplier.

Officials then notify Milton schools that the emergency will affect student pickups, and police inform the local media that nearby residents should remain indoors.

Not bad for an hour and a half’s work.

But then again, in a chemical accident, that’s the value of a combined effort between emergency workers and plant operators, said Janesville Fire Lt. Kent Shea, the department’s Hazmat team leader.

“The reason this went so quick is that we got information from the plant officials. We had no unknowns. We knew what we were monitoring, and we were able to make decisions quickly,” Shea said.

Lippincott said Wednesday’s training went well, but it wasn’t without glitches. For instance, he said some officials had difficulty using communication equipment from the command post in the plant’s office.

“You always find something,” he said. “But overall, we learned we can make this work in a real situation. We can utilize outside resources along with our public safety people to make a response work.”

Last updated: 2:57 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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