Appeared in The Texas Observer
The deaths of 10 volunteer firefighters who perished in the West fertilizer plant disaster in April 2013 were preventable, according to a long-awaited report released tonight by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
The firefighters gave their lives to save their community and followed their training, the report finds, but didn’t have the resources or knowledge to fight a dangerous fire that involved a little-understood hazardous material.
“The strategy and tactics utilized by the West Volunteer Fire Department were not appropriate for the rapidly developing and extremely volatile situation, and exposed the firefighters to extreme risks,” the report says.
The analysis echoes a problem identified in many, if not most, of the recent firefighting deaths in Texas: a tendency to take unnecessary risks in a valiant effort to put out fires. The State Fire Marshal’s Office found that the same basic firefighting safety practices were ignored in West as in other tragedies resulting in firefighter deaths: no ranking officer took charge of the scene, and the firefighters did not fully consider the severity of the fire or thoroughly assess the risks before acting.
Because the West VFD typically deals with residential fires, it didn’t respond to the fire at the fertilizer plant as a hazardous materials emergency, the report states. A larger fire department with industrial firefighting experience might have approached the situation differently.
The report confirms that Cody Dragoo, who was a foreman at the fertilizer plant and also a West volunteer firefighter, told the West fire chief and others that the plant wouldn’t explode. Still, Assistant Fire Chief Emmanuel Mitchell voiced concern that they should back off from the facility, but did not give the order to do so. The firefighters relied on Dragoo’s knowledge about the plant, and were reassured when the foreman said the ammonium nitrate wouldn’t get hot enough to explode and that the fire wouldn’t reach it.
The fire department’s lack of a pre-incident plan is cited as another gap. It’s difficult for volunteer fire departments to conduct inspections of high-risk buildings, but the report states that such checks are imperative for structures housing hazardous chemicals like ammonium nitrate.
In short, the firefighters’ response was informed by their training and previous experience—the report notes that they did not fail to perform their duties. However, more training and preparation would have likely saved lives.
Aside from department-specific recommendations, the State Fire Marshal’s Office recommends that Texas towns and cities adopt fire codes—the city of West is already considering one—and that the Texas Legislature lift a ban on counties with fewer than 250,000 residents, or ones adjacent to such counties, from adopting a fire code.