Custom Quick Reference Information Directories
GCC Blog

We hope you find our articles informative and interesting. If you'd like to receive our monthly newsletter with articles like these, please take a minute to sign up.

Deer Park, Texas, Fire Underscores Why Good Companies Plan for Disasters

May 7th, 2019 by Guest Communications

Written by: Jordan Blum, Houston Chronicle

(TNS) – As a cloud of toxic darkness hovered above, spokeswoman Alice Richardson was asked if the Intercontinental Terminals Co. would apologize to all of the residents of Deer Park for the petrochemical fire that raged for almost four days, releasing a seemingly endless plume of noxious smoke that would stretch hundreds of miles in the sky.

Of course ITC would apologize to all of them, Richardson said Tuesday as tears welled up in her eyes and her voice cracked. The company is very sorry, she insisted. “This isn’t an event we wanted or planned,” she said. “Many of my employees work in the city of Deer Park. They’re out there fighting this fire the best they can.”

The fire was finally extinguished less than 24 hours later on Wednesday. But, early Thursday morning, an emergency shelter-in-place warning was issued not because of the smoke, but from dangerously high levels of the invisible, cancer-causing crude oil compound benzene that were detected just outside of Houston in Deer Park. As the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would later note, “Because the fires are no longer burning, vapor from remaining exposed chemicals can escape. The remaining product is being removed, and vapor suppression activities are continuing.”

Essentially, a day after Deer Park residents thought they could finally take in some — relatively — fresh air, an emergency started all over again without a strong enough warning that this was an ominous possibility.

Emergency planning and response protocols are a critical part of the Houston energy sector, and the key goal is always to avoid multiday environmental and human health disasters. But they do still happen and will continue to occur in the future. Crisis and communications experts warn it is essential for companies to do everything they can to avoid disasters while still planning for the worst. Richardson of ITC did not respond to an interview request.

So much is essential from the “golden hour” after a disaster strikes for the ongoing communication with the wide range of stakeholders, including employees, neighboring residents, investors, governmental officials, the media and more. And countless hours of planning only go as far as they’re effectively put into practice.

“The biggest thing of course is to identify all the weaknesses and prevent a disaster from happening,” said Terry Hemeyer, executive counsel at Pierpont Communications and an adjunct management professor at Rice University. “Most companies have plans. The good companies rehearse and have tabletop exercises with emergency response officials.”

Incidents that occur can include small pipeline leaks, large explosions like the Arkema chemical plant disaster in Crosby after Hurricane Harvey that led to the indictments of the CEO and others, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon tragedy that left 11 people dead and spewed oil for three months from BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Other fires just in recent days have ranged from Exxon Mobil’s sprawling complex in nearby Baytown to Houston-based Phillips 66’s Carson refinery in California.

Hemeyer was a group vice president at Pennzoil for years, including when a refinery explosion in 1995 in Pennsylvania killed three people and injured others. He helped lead the communications response from Houston. “We were on top of it quickly,” he said, in part because every worker should know whom to call when there’s an issue.

“The key is to gain control of it and fix the problems,” he said, including putting out the fires, taking care of the employees and the injured, coordinating with local officials, contractors and vendors, and controlling the messaging and communications with the public.

Honesty is always critical, even if that means temporarily delaying the release of some information. “You don’t talk before you have the facts. We don’t want to say something if it’s not true,” Hemeyer added.

At Pennzoil, they could pull the vital response teams together within 20 minutes to start working the problems, he said, including logistics teams buying or locating any necessary parts to fix equipment or put out fires. Today, spray foams are quickly deployed to try to put out fires and suppress chemical leaks.

Companies should be prepared to respond at all hours but sometimes they’re caught off guard. That shouldn’t occur.

“That’s usually because it happens at 2 a.m.,” Hemeyer said. “I often say crises don’t happen from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

The planning process should be very inclusive, said Julie Fix, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Houston who heads the Fix & Associates public relations firm.

“You want every Chicken Little in your organization in the planning room saying, ‘The sky is falling,’” she said, so every possibility is considered.

The messaging to everyone who’s impacted is critical. Employees and their families will need to receive much different information, Fix said, than investors and securities analysts who are more concerned about the impacts on the company and the stock performance.

“The secret isn’t magical,” she said. “It’s recognizing the vulnerabilities and how to deliver communications to all the necessary parties.”

While communication used to focus on phone calls and the media, now companies also need to utilize email, websites and social media to get the messages out. Twitter and Facebook, for instance, are just as important as almost as anything else, Fix said.

A lot of energy companies follow the lead of the federal government, adopting a unified incident command system, called ICS, for a standardized approach, which first originated decades ago from wildfires in California and Arizona. The system can be used for everything from active shooter scenarios to hazardous materials accidents that require major evacuations.

The ICS strategy requires a clear chain of command set up well in advance of any disaster with an incident commander in charge and then public information and liaisons officers to lead the communications. There are typically four teams with everyone knowing their responsibilities — an operations response team, planning team, logistics team and an administration team to oversee financial and legal matters.

Oftentimes, the federal, state or local responders will lead the situation with the companies providing support and information.

Energy companies mostly declined comment for this story or only spoke on background. Chevron, for instance, declined an interview request but pointed out its emergency preparedness strategies worldwide that include planning efforts with a vast array of nations.

Chevron uses a tiered approach that goes down to site-specific responses for every facility, and up to a corporate team responsible for providing guidance and expertise in emergency response, crisis management and business continuity. Chevron has expert contractors in all sorts of areas like wildlife management, oil spill and air-dispersion modeling, toxicology, fire fighting, and shipping and salvage.

And Chevron participates in multiple international oil spill cooperatives with other energy firms.

Companies have to work together for planning and best practices. After all, fairly or not, every incident is essentially a black mark on the entire industry.

jordan.blum@chron.com

twitter.com/jdblum23

———

©2019 the Houston Chronicle

Visit the Houston Chronicle at www.chron.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

https://www.govtech.com/em/preparedness/Deer-Park-Fire-Underscores-Why-Good-Companies-Plan-for-Disasters.html


Guide to Guest Services
Fully customized vinyl information directories for your patients and their visitors. They are easy to update and easy to use.
Guide to Emergency Preparedness
Fully customized quick reference guides to help keep your staff prepared for emergencies.
Guide to Infection Control
Fully customized quick reference guide to help keep your staff prepared for safe infection prevention and control procedures.
Accessories for your guides
Protect your investment by utilizing one of our various mounting systems.
Other Popular Products
Customized products including 3-Ring Binders, Sports Memory Books, Menus, Hotel Directories, and more…