Dispatchers Play Critical Role

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On the morning of November 1, 2007, a pipeline near the town of Carmichael, Mississippi split open, releasing liquid propane that quickly turned to vapor.  Residents in the area called 911 to report the event.  The dispatch center told callers they would send help.  However, shortly after the first call was received the vapor cloud ignited, resulting in a large explosion, ultimately killing two people, injuring seven others and destroying four homes.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was called in to investigate this accident.  The NTSB is the agency responsible for investigating transportation-related events involving planes, trains, pipelines and other forms of transportation.  As part of any investigation, the NTSB makes determinations about the cause and issues recommendations intended to prevent future accidents.  In some cases, these recommendations include directives to be followed by the involved parties.

The NTSB investigation for the Carmichael incident revealed that, despite pipeline operators providing emergency response training events for community responders on a regular basis for decades, the local dispatchers had not received key safety information and training regarding pipeline-related emergencies.  Specifically, the dispatchers were not prepared to recognize the telltale signs that are suggestive of a pipeline emergency.  Because they were unaware of these signs, they could not warn those who were at risk of the steps that should be taken to protect themselves, including evacuation.

The final report issued by the NTSB made several recommendations relating to pipeline operators’ efforts to educate the general public and responders about potential hazards posed by a pipeline.  Specifically, dispatchers should be included in the groups of stakeholders who receive regular information, training and other learning opportunities relating to pipeline safety.

The NTSB acknowledged that there was insufficient time in the Carmichael event for the area to be evacuated soon enough to prevent the tragedy that occurred.  However, many important lessons were learned.  In consideration of the recommendations issued by the NTSB, representatives of the pipeline industry joined forces with members of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) to develop guidelines for those who serve as dispatchers for emergency services.

Working cooperatively, the group developed an industry standard that focuses on three areas of pipeline awareness for the dispatching community with regard to incidents that involve natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines.  Those areas are outlined below:

Key Information for Dispatchers:

Know:

  • The pipelines in your area
  • The signs of a pipeline release
  • The procedures to take in the event a potential release is identified or suspected

Ask for Information Relating to:

  • Caller’s location & contact information
  • Facts relating to the emergency
  • Ways to determine whether the caller is in immediate danger

Take Steps to:

  • Direct the caller to take specific actions
  • Avoid certain activities
  • Help coordinate the initial response by making contact with emergency responders and the pipeline operator

Taking the first step along the path toward implementation of this important document, NENA is in the process of reviewing the proposed Standard with their members. The partnership between the pipeline industry and the dispatching community will continue to develop new training opportunities and educational materials that can be used by pipeline operators to interact with emergency responders and especially 911 dispatchers.

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