Communication with First Responders Key to Successful Outcomes
By Gary White
Several recent pipeline incidents have highlighted the critical need for better emergency responder communications and training. As a result, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) continue to issue recommendations and regulations addressing the pipeline operators’ requirements to communicate with emergency responders.
Following the San Bruno, Calif. gas pipeline rupture in September 2010, the NTSB issued safety recommendations directing pipeline operators to “provide system-specific information about their pipeline systems to the emergency response agencies of the communities and jurisdictions in which those pipelines are located. This information should include pipe diameter, operating pressure, product transported and potential impact radius” (P-11-08), and to “immediately and directly notify the PSAP that serves the communities and jurisdictions in which those pipelines are located when there are indications of a pipeline facility emergency” (P-11-09). Additionally, recommendations were made to PHMSA that have resulted in the issuance of several Advisory Bulletins and the commissioning of a guide on Communicating Emergency Response Information for Natural Gas and Hazardous Liquid Pipelines.
An examination of the NTSB reports for 32 of the most recent major pipeline incidents determined that 59 percent had one or more deficiencies that contributed to excess losses.
The most common problem was the failure to notify emergency services or the pipeline operator promptly, followed by delayed action by a pipeline operator. Evidence has shown that the exchange of information, i.e., communications, is crucial in the early stages of a pipeline emergency. Both operators and responders must work together to ensure that communication is the primary component of any emergency response plan, which should be predicated on specific levels of preparedness by both the operator and the emergency personnel.
Information is Key
Nearly all of the challenges can be addressed through improved communications during both the planning and the response phase of incidents. A successful outcome will not be achieved in the absence of addressing critical information needs, communication processes and adequate preparation. Given the risks involved, and the relative infrequency of a major pipeline incident, a collaborative effort between pipeline operators and emergency responders is essential for the management of true effective emergency preparedness.
The challenges that face emergency responders vary from the simple recognition of an emergency and knowing who the pipeline operator is, to the exchange of information with operators to understanding the nature of the environment. The delays in determining these factors contributed to the amount of damage that occurred in the pipeline emergencies studied. Incomplete, inadequate or unclear communication will result in a delayed response and may contribute to an excess release of hazardous substances into the environment, excess property damage and human casualties.
Proper planning prior to a pipeline emergency is critical to producing favorable outcomes, with proper communication being a key component.
Each organization and/or agency involved in responding to a pipeline incident has different information requirements that are unique to their particular function. Sharing critical information with the right people at the right time is the key to a successful outcome.
In order to minimize response time for potential complex and specialized emergencies, considerable planning and preparation are required to improve the information flow between pipeline operator and emergency responder in support of a timely and effective response.
It is imperative to identify what information is needed, how it will be collected, who will manage it and how it will be communicated to the persons who need to make key decisions.
Preparation begins with pipeline operators informing emergency officials about operations in their service area. Specific technologies for the exchange of this vital information, the means of sharing information among all parties, and contacts for key individuals and offices must be established.
Collection and management of identified sites, structure and evacuation assistance information is incumbent upon the operator with the provision of this information to emergency responders being critical in order to support safe distance management. Understanding capabilities also plays a key role in response management. The operator and emergency responder need to have a clear understanding of the level of response required and the personnel and equipment required.
A pipeline operator’s emergency response plans have typically been developed as a benchmark by and for pipeline operation personnel, with the information having limited value to the emergency responders. Providing these plans to emergency responders and expecting them to manage them as required by the current regulation (especially in areas where multiple pipelines share the right of way) is an ineffective approach during an incident. Operators and emergency response personnel need to engage in scenario based incident command preparation to ensure familiarity with the required response activity.
Regulators are also proposing that the Public Safety Access Points (PSAP) be used as the primary communication conduit between pipeline operators and the emergency responders, primarily because the industry is lacking a viable alternative. Counting on the PSAP as the responsible party for the dissemination of critical information during an emergency may not be the most effective alternative.
These call takers may not have the experience or training to ask the right questions during a pipeline emergency or the situational understanding to properly relate critical information between emergency responders, pipeline operators and the impacted public. While PSAP certainly have a place in a pipeline emergency, how extensive their responsibilities should be is a question that both pipeline operators and emergency responders should examine.
The challenge of information exchange during preparation and response is the management of a real time shared environment to support situational awareness and collaborative command and control across all participating responders and agencies. Once this has been accomplished, the shortcomings associated with the use of paper, voice over radio communications (when the communication environment is compromised by infrastructure outages) and face-to-face meetings are minimized. Using a real time collaborative environment supports the timely collection, processing and distribution of accurate information between the involved personnel. Information exchanged through an interactive mapping feature will enhance the quality of communications by integrating resources and plans while tracking completed activities for all to see.
While findings from the pipeline incident database show that delays in the initial notification to both emergency responders and/or pipeline operators are dominant, on-scene issues of coordination or proper action on the part of pipeline operators and/or emergency services occurred in more than 20 percent of incidents studied.
Information that would benefit emergency responders include the nature of the incident; pipeline product, diameter and pressure; evacuation area and potential impact radius; structures that may need evacuation assistance; and identified site locations.
Activity information that can be shared in real time by all involved personnel includes; when the evacuation is completed, placement of and instruction for roadblocks, notifications made, where and when the incident command center was established, location of EMS, location of law enforcement and status updates.
A web-based solution would allow all parties the ability to use a map-based environment accessible from any location by computer, laptop or smart phone. This will allow operators, on scene personnel and emergency response coordinators to view vital information as it is happening on site, updated every 30 seconds.
Improvements to pipeline emergency response are a concern by both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. As evidenced by recent U.S. Government Accountability Office testimony before the Senate, it was suggested that pipeline operators and emergency response communities need to seek out alternative solutions to preparing for and responding to pipeline emergencies.
Although several efforts have been performed to assist in the coordination of a better alternative to the challenges in communicating with emergency responders, to date, the latest technology solutions have not been considered.
PI Confluence with industry funding under a Pipeline Research Council International project has developed PipelineWatch to provide a “Scenario Based Incident Command Preparation and Response” web-based solution.
To see how your company’s incident command preparation and response approach compares to others in the industry, PI Confluence invites readers to take an anonymous web-based survey. Please visit www.pipelinewatch.com to participate.
Gary White is president and CEO at PI Confluence.