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Incident escalation

“IF EMPLOYEES can't handle an incident, the problem is moving toward an emergency.”

That was a comment from Mike Callan of Callan and Company at the National Association of Chemical Distributors annual Operations Seminar September 14-16 in San Jose, California.

He described how an incident escalates from a situation that employees can solve, to an emergency that requires serious and immediate attention, to a crisis that soon becomes uncontrollable and results in a disaster.

“Emergency means I need help now — and you need to use the word emergency,” he added. “It's easier to gear down than to gear up.”

Planning for the worse-case scenario in order to be prepared is essential, but the most important thing is to engineer and design operations so that the opportunity for emergencies is lessened.

“You have to prevent the problem from happening,” he said. “But when you can't handle it, you have to go to the next level. It takes five hours to change what happens in the first five minutes, if the situation isn't managed correctly. It never starts out as a crisis.”

He recommended that employees, such as drivers, who may be directly involved in an incident be given a short list of immediate things to do — assuming there is no threat to life. “The driver may be the only person at the scene,” Callan pointed out

In addition, employees at the plant who are the first to answer the phone should have a short list of appropriate comments if contacted by the media or the public.

A good training program produces employees who are competent in an emergency. “The training program is not about a certificate in the file,” he said. “If they don't know what to do, they become incompetent.”

And, he added, “Practice, practice, practice.”

When a situation does escalate, site management and control is essential. Personnel should identify the problem, control the site (at least 150 feet around the area), evaluate the hazards and risks, select proper protective clothing for responders, coordinate resources, implement response objectives, and decontaminate people at the scene.

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