A bridge collapsed a couple days ago. In West, Texas, a fertilizer plant combusts yet the state prohibits most of its counties from keeping fire codes. The Dallas Morning News has the story:
Yet for 173 of Texas’ 254 counties, adopting rules based on that experience is illegal. They are either below 250,000 in population or don’t touch a county of that size.
Having fewer people doesn’t mean less risk. Those counties contain some of the most dangerous chemicals and industrial processes in Texas, The Dallas Morning News found.
“It’s not 1956 anymore,” said Jasper County Judge Mark Allen, whose county, while mostly rural, has multiple potential sources of industrial risks.
“It’s not 1964 or ’65,” Allen said. “We’re not Mayberry. We have life-threatening events every day.”
But 85 percent of the code-prohibited counties have no full-time professional fire department anywhere in the county, The News found. Only a few bigger industries have their own specially trained and equipped in-house fire brigades.
Training and gear for chemical emergencies are beyond the reach of most volunteer fire departments. In the 173 counties that cannot adopt a fire code, 21 have established local emergency-services districts, but few of those provide enough money even to cover the basics.
With a state-mandated tax cap of 10 cents per $100 in assessed property value, a $100,000 home provides an emergency-services district with no more than $100 a year.
Standard turnout gear for a volunteer firefighter can cost thousands. Many departments rely on fish-fry fundraisers and coin jars on local store counters just for essentials.
Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, said he’s seen local volunteers thrilled to be able to buy an aging water tank truck, paint it red and put a flashing light on top.
The association, based in Austin, advocates for better fire-service funding, including for volunteers.
I suppose this is the spirit of volunteerism to which Republicans allude. County officials lack the comprehension to even ask for state aid:
McLennan County could have implemented a fire code that some experts say may have prevented the fatal explosions at the West Fertilizer Co.
Although Texas law prohibits many small counties from adopting such codes, McLennan is not among them. The county became eligible, according to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, after the 2010 census when the population of an adjacent county, Bell, exceeded 250,000.
But McLennan County didn’t act, perhaps because officials didn’t know they had the option.
On April 17, a fire at West Fertilizer led to two explosions of ammonium nitrate that killed 15, injured 200 and caused an estimated $100 million in property damage. Twelve of the dead were first responders.
Investigators said they have not pinpointed the cause of the fire, which burned for at least 22 minutes. But they have said there are three possible sources: a 120-volt electrical system, a battery-operated golf cart that may have overheated, or arson.
A properly enforced code requiring fire detection and automatic sprinkler systems might have stopped the blaze from triggering the explosions, said Scott Harris, who worked in Texas for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an emergency response manager.
“If you can stop a fire in the beginning stage, then you don’t have an outcome like West. A small fire or electrical short or any kind of malfunction like that, the earlier you can catch it, the less the damage and hazard to the population,” said Harris, a senior adviser for a safety science firm, UL Workplace Health and Safety.
Loyd Dittfurth, a former volunteer firefighter in the Panhandle who has urged legislators to allow all Texas counties to adopt fire codes in their unincorporated areas, said he agreed.
“West, Texas, wouldn’t have happened if they had a fire code in place. If someone would have walked in there and said, ‘You don’t have a sprinkler system,’ there wouldn’t have been this tragedy,” said Dittfurth. He recently was hired as a code inspector for the state Department of Aging and Disability Services.
A sprinkler system. That’s it.