A middle school, a hospital and a nursing home perhaps didn't realize they had a dangerous neighbor until a West, Texas, fertilizer plant within 1,500 feet of them exploded in April. The tragedy killed 15, injured at least 200, and resulted in $100 million in damages from 50 tons of a chemical called ammonium nitrate.
It's a sobering reminder for communities to monitor potentially hazardous materials that may be closer to people's backyards than they think.
Although Newton Fire/EMS Chief Mark Willis said it's dangerous to assume a similar tragedy couldn't happen locally, officials work hard to keep track of dangerous materials and formulate a response plan ahead of time in case a disaster were to occur.
"We have to be very proactive and not be alarmist, but at the same time, be prepared," said Willis, who also serves on the state's Commission on Emergency Planning and Response.
He said numerous hazardous materials are housed throughout the county — a necessity of industry — and other materials pass through Newton daily via the railroad and the interstate.
"We have the potential for significant events every day," he said. Though major events aren't common, "When things go wrong, they can go really wrong."
Newton's entire Fire/EMS team is trained to respond to hazmat incidents, and 12 members have the highest level of certification. When they first respond to a scene, they try to identify the substance as quickly as possible and then take appropriate actions. This could include securing the scene and evacuating nearby residents (with the help of law enforcement), or keeping the substance from spreading.
"We want to try to contain it to the site," he said.
Regional response teams also are available to provide mutual aid at a hazmat scene.
"Anything that would exceed our level of expertise or equipment, we can call for help," he said.
The nature of the substance determines whether it's safer to keep the public indoors or have them move to another area. If the substance is on fire, response crews have to deduce — often quickly — what stage the fire is in and if an explosion is imminent.
"You have to make some really rapid decisions based on the information you have," Willis said.
Harvey County has had some hazmat incidents, though not to the extent of the West, Texas, explosion. Willis said last year a liquid propane tank was hit by lightning and caught on fire, but crews were able to contain it before the fire got out of hand. Harvey County also has experienced some train derailments and anhydrous ammonia leaks, mostly in agricultural settings.
Willis said Harvey County officials want to avoid some of the factors that led to the explosion in West, Texas. The local fire department and the business were reportedly not aware of the quantity of the substance on site and did not have a contingency plan for an emergency.
Harvey County's Emergency Management office, directed by Lon Buller, plays a key role in disaster prevention. The county maintains a list of facilities with hazardous substances. In the event of a dangerous spill or release, the facility must immediately contact the fire department and report the chemical's name, the amount released, and the time the release occurred.
Willis said another key player is Harvey County's Local Emergency Planning Committee, a group composed of representatives from Fire/EMS, law enforcement, health care, railroad and more. The group meets multiple times a year to discuss safety concerns in the county and strategies for dealing with those concerns.
"We're working together and learning together," he said.
If you'd like to learn more about the county's hazmat response plan, visit www.harveycounty.com/emergency-operations-plan.html.