Do you simulate disasters in your area?

posted Apr 10, 2016, 10:59 AM by Niels Jensen   [ updated Feb 14, 2017, 3:21 AM ]
2014 Sarnia Area Disaster Simulation
Many years ago in the early eigthies,when I was employed as a process control engineer in Sarnia (a city in south-eastern Ontario, Canada), and were working out of a temporary barracks in the Chemical Valley I and most of my colleagues were declared dead during that years Sarnia Area Disaster Simulation. That years disaster simulation involved the release of hydrogen bromide from a facility located a few kilometers south of our offices. Hydrogen Bromide is a heavy gas, which spread along the ground in the prevailing wind direction. The prevailing wind direction at the time for the simulation was from the south, so the spread was simulated by having a man walk from the release site towards the north along the main road Vidal St S.
When the alarm sounded shortly after lunch we started putting tape around all the windows in our temporary office building. However, the exercise official declared us dead because they judged the floor of the building not to be air tight.If we had decided to leave the building and drive north, then we would have saved our lives. However, when the alarm sounded we did not know 1) what caused the alarm, 2) where the event was taking place, and hence the chosen action: shelter-in-place.
What did we learn from this exercise? We learned, that also office building at or close to plants need to be equipped with emergency phones, and not just rely on the alarm horns of the plants, which correctly informed us to shelter-in-place. Our shelter was just not good enough.
This kind of exercise is not cheap to arrange. It involve emergency responders from several plants in the area, police activation of traffic control to and form the industrial area, and hence significant loss of work hours at all the involved plants. However, it was judged that this cost was reasonable compared to the potential loss of a real disaster. One of the real benefits were improved collaboration among emergency responders from different plants, police and municipal authorities.

These Sarnia Area Disasters Simulations continue to this day. The above picture was from is from the 2014 simulation. Today the public is informed about an upcoming exercise through the local media, and signs are posted that around the community during the exercise. This is one of the results of an exercise involving a school bus being pierced by an iron bar on the side of the main local highway. That event resulted in the police being unable to place phone calls due to incoming phone calls from concerned parents. Last years exercise involved a tank fire due to a lighting strike. The community actually experienced just that during a thunderstorm in the summer of 1996.

To maximize the benefits of such area wide disaster simulations the objectives of the exercise and the learning goals must be clear. Otherwise, the whole thing is just a waste of time and money.
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