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.
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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.