Strengthening emergency response system: A web-based interactive response mapping system is the key to an effective emergency response plan, as it provides critical information to first responders to expedite rescue operations.
The common man has a growing concern in regards to their safety, especially when living in proximity to gas pipelines. Accidents such as those that happened in San Bruno and Allentown have public officials questioning the reliability of gas operators to proficiently respond to a major event. These concerns have operators taking a hard look at their current emergency response plan to see how effective they will be in the event of a major disaster.
The gas industry faces a much larger challenge when it comes to developing an effective emergency response plan. Gas pipelines carry products that have the potential to explode when exposed to ignition, especially when there is a leakage. With third-party damage as the leading cause of pipeline leakage throughout the US, the potential for ignition is almost a forgone conclusion when it comes to gas pipelines. Emergency response plans cannot eliminate these threats, but must address the aftermath once they occur. Fire, injuries and evacuation of surrounding structures are but a few of the immediate concerns that must be dealt with. Deployment of first responders (Fire, Police and EMS), cutting the flow of gas or other inflammable product that was being piped, and evacuation of people are of the highest priority when addressing public safety. An emergency response plan is as good as the people implementing it, so gas operators need to maintain a team of first responders who have the proper equipment to respond to such events. In many cases, local communities form a joint task force for responding to accidents.
Identifying the impact zone
Part of the operator’s responsibility is to know the impact zone associated with each pipeline. They must also know which structures (businesses, homes, apartment building etc.), as well as areas where people could collect (playgrounds, parks etc.), fall within these impact zones. Both of these are part of the high consequence area (HCA) analysis that operators are required to perform for each pipeline in their system.
By knowing these HCAs ahead of time, each location can be incorporated into the emergency response plan (ERP). In the event of an accident, the ERP should have a mechanism in place to alert the people living in HCA immediately with instructions on what they should do and where to go. Knowing which locations do not respond can facilitate deployment of first responders to these areas to verify no one is there, or provide assistance if needed. ERP should have pre-established evacuation points at safe distance away from the accident point. This allows for evacuees to safely report in and aids in the determination that everyone has been successfully accounted for.
Roles and responsibilities for company personnel need to be predefined in the plan to ensure fast, effective deployment of both equipment and people to expedite the response. Controlling the supply of product (gas) to the release/leakage point is critical once the public safety has been addressed. This can be done by two ways: first, Automatic Shutoff Valves (ASV) and Remote Controlled Valves (RCV) can be used to cut off the supply of gas to the accident site, especially if it is close enough to the leakage point. The second is to manually block the valves, which requires company personnel to be deployed to the location to manually close the valve to slow down the supply of product (gas) to the leakage point. In the response plan, each valve location needs to be identified beforehand to enable quick action.
With the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) putting operators on notice that ERPs must be reviewed and updated, another aspect of the plan deployment has come to the forefront. Providing first responders’ access to ERPs in advance has become a priority. On August 31, 2011, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) had released the pipeline accident report on the San Bruno, CA, natural gas pipeline explosion and fire. A major recommendation of the report was: “Require operators of natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines and hazardous liquid pipelines 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.”
The intent of the recommendation is for the operators to provide each authority that could/would respond to a release the detailed information regarding the pipeline and product being transported within their area of responsibility.
Response mapping system
Development of an interactive web-based response mapping system that can be integrated/linked directly with a database driven ERP for rapid analysis in the event of an accident is critical to an operator’s initial response.
This type of system can be used to provide first responders easy access to detailed information required to assist in their response. The information can be tailored down to specific areas of accountability for each authority along the entire pipeline system. Having the ability to locate the point of gas leakage or accident and then determining the driving directions to the location is one of the first requirements of the first responders. With the use of the response mapping system, this can be accomplished almost immediately once an exact location has been determined, aiding in the initial response. Both ERP and the response mapping system should be web-based and should be easily accessible using a secure-login. Response mapping can allow the end-user direct access to live traffic feeds, if available, to assist in rerouting traffic around an event, provide live weather feeds to assist in determining response strategies and give a detailed list of qualified response personnel in the immediate area, if necessary.
The ability to overlay revised or new response locations, updated resource planning for key components such as command centre location, equipment staging, and zone headquarters are just a few highlights of an efficient response mapping system. This gives operators the ability to keep the corporate office informed at all times of an event regardless of where it is located. Real-time updates can be posted immediately to reflect the most current conditions in the field. The capability to print and store maps on demand gives an operator the ability to keep all stakeholders apprised of their current situation despite how often it changes, while at the same time, keeping historical records of any/all changes and updates that happen throughout a response situation. The question is – does your emergency response plan provide the critical information needed to enable first responders make informed decisions in the event an accident?