Think twice before going along with a policy that requires you to direct all 911 calls from end users’ stations to a security desk, even if your enterprise has its own emergency services response team.
It’s possible that just such a policy was in place at a West Virginia chemical plant on Aug. 28, when an explosion killed one worker and injured another. Bayer CropScience’s emergency response in the aftermath of the disaster is good reason to reexamine how your enterprise communicates with public safety teams. The company now faces official inquiries from state, local and federal agencies.
At the heart of the investigations is a startling fact: The Kanawha County Metro 911 operators, where the plant is based, could not reach anyone inside the plant for detailed information, and it appears the initial calls they got alerting them to the emergency were from area residents outside the plant.
Recordings of calls between Kanawha County Metro 911 operators and the guard at the main gate of the Bayer plant reveal confusion as the county’s emergency personnel try to figure out what is happening inside. (Listen to the calls at www.thevoicereport.com/2008-09-11/911Recording. The file might take a minute to load.)
911 Calls Might Have Terminated within Enterprise
In a series of 12 calls between 10:39 p.m. Aug. 28 and 5:50 a.m. Aug. 29, the operators at the county 911 center repeatedly ask what happened in the pesticide manufacturing plant and what areas were affected. The explosion was so strong it shook houses miles away. Worried county officials closed roads and ordered nearby residents and students at West Virginia State University to stay inside.
“I’m only allowed to tell you there’s an emergency in the plant,” replies a guard who identifies himself in the calls as Steve. He tells the 911 operator his shift leader instructed him not to give further details, other than to say that Bayer’s internal emergency squads were on the scene.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Dale Petry, Kanawha emergency director, tells the Charleston Gazette. “We couldn’t get anything out of them. We want to protect the community and we need more information to do that.”
After listening to the recordings, Mark Fletcher, Nortel’s product line manager for emergency services, concludes that end users’ 911 calls might not have gotten to the public safety answering point, and instead terminated inside Bayer’s network.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper wrote a letter to Bayer saying its “lack of response” violated government reporting requirements and the emergency plan.
Bayer released a statement saying that more details were provided to the public emergency responders than the 911 tapes reflect, but pledged to work with them in the future to improve communication. Bayer did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
OSHA, State Laws Govern Emergency Plans
There’s no telling whether public emergency services could have responded better to the disaster than Bayer’s own emergency teams. But local officials say the disaster calls the enterprise’s emergency plan into question, and attorneys say it exposes the company to potential financial liability.
If the family of the dead worker files a wrongful death claim and wins, the company could be ordered to pay the amount the deceased would have earned in his lifetime, plus compensation for pain and suffering endured before death, explains Mark Lies, an attorney specializing in occupational safety and employment law at Chicago-based Seyfarth Shaw.
Under Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) regulations, companies must create an emergency action plan that details its arrangements in disasters like fires, explosions and tornadoes, Lies says. Bayer could face penalties if a court finds its emergency action plan was inadequate.
In addition to penalties levied for wrongful death and pain and suffering, serious OSHA violations carry fines of $7,000, while willful violations could cost an enterprise $70,000, he adds.
Maine Law Model for In-House Emergency Response
Part of your enterprise’s emergency action plan should spell out when it will call on public safety resources, Lies says.
Many enterprises – including large businesses and universities in campus environments – opt to terminate end users’ 911 calls at a security desk or other endpoint within the enterprise, Fletcher says. Such an arrangement creates a “private emergency answering point” (PEAP, pronounced “peep”).
Maine’s E911 laws are the best Fletcher says he’s seen with regards to PEAPs, and might serve as a model in building your own emergency response plan. [Read all the Maine law’s PEAP requirements in this month’s WorkTool]
The Maine statute says enterprises seeking authorization to operate a PEAP need to have their own medical, fire and law enforcement teams, either internally or by contract.
It also recommends you arrange call-handling agreements with local public safety answering points for additional backup, including a network diagram showing trunking configurations from your enterprise’s switch to local public safety answering points (PSAPs) Overflow calls that your PEAP can’t pick up should terminate at the local public 911 center. Your PEAP should also have ring-down or transfer capability to the PSAP to transfer 911 calls.
Under Maine law, emergency calls must be identified by your telecom equipment so the operator can give priority to the call, and where possible, the switch should give top priority to emergency calls if blocking is enabled in the phone system.
The PEAP must be operational 24x7, except when the business is closed and there’s no chance employees could be present. Personnel answering phones at the PEAP must be trained to respond to emergency callers and to get help from emergency responders inside and outside of the enterprise. Maine mandates these operators attend state-provided dispatcher training. (