The Buncefield Explosion: Incident Command System

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Introduction

Taking a retrospective look at the Buncefield explosion incident, there are many implications for current and future considerations. In that regard, there is no better way of identifying gaps in incident management than reporting the damages caused, categorizing the damages that could have been, the reasons they could not have been avoided, and a practical solution for future consideration. The Incident Command System (ICS) is “a systematic tool used for the command, control, and coordination of an emergency response” (US Department of Transportation 1).

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In that regard, the present report attempts to use the Buncefield incident to demonstrate the necessity of implementing ICS constantly, as a response system that will increase the effectiveness of incident management and decrease the damage of large-scale incidents such as Buncefield.

Background

On Sunday 11 December 2005, a series of explosions started a fire that destroyed Buncefield oil storage and transfer depot, Hemel Hempstead. The fire started a chain reaction that ignited 23 large fuel storage tanks, followed by a large fire that lasted for five days, destroying most of the site and emitting a large plume of smoke that dispersed over southern England beyond. The damages caused by the explosion and the subsequent fire included, but were not limited to, the following:

  • 43 people injured.
  • Damage to the Buncefield site, including 23 large fuel storage tanks and the transfer depot.
  • Significant damage to the nearby commercial and over 300 residential properties.
  • £70 million in lost stock (UK Resilience).
  • 2000 people were evacuated.
  • Closing of M1 motorway.
  • The environmental damage caused to the southern England area.

The rationale of using an incident command system

To outline the rationale of using ICS, an overview of the potential pitfalls in incident management in general, and in Buncefield, in particular, will clarify the picture. Considering the scale of the Buncefield incident and the period the fire lasted, i.e. five days, the factors that essentially affect effective incident management includes the following:

  • A single organizational management (Irwin). The division between different jurisdictions is a common problem that can be also witnessed in the Buncefield incident, in which there was a possible lack of multijurisdictional support.
  • Communication failures. Effective communication can be seen as one of the most common pitfalls of incident management. In the Buncefield case, it can be seen that considering the 5 day period, during which the fire lasted, and the damage caused to the nearby property, the failure to coordinate the work when localizing the fire can be contributed to the lack of communication.
  • The lack of prediction capability. Such a factor can be explained through the failure to predict future events, which in the case of Buncefield implies the dispersion of fire to 23 tanks.
  • The absence of any communication with the media and public agencies.

In that regard, the rationale of using ICS can be seen in the advantages that such a system should provide to the area of incident management. These advantages include the following:

  • The provision of a clear focus for the management and the authorities.
  • The provision of an expandable structure, appropriate to the scale of the incident.
  • Enabling quick team response formation.
  • The provision of a structure for information flow.
  • Ensuring that response is system-based, rather than individual-based.
  • The usage of common terminology (Cameron 62).

The levels of incident command system

It should be mentioned that for the ICS system to work effectively, it should be able to provide operations at three levels of incident character:

  • single jurisdiction or single agency,
  • single jurisdiction with multiple agency support,
  • multijurisdictional or multiagency support” (Haddow, Bullock and Coppola 111).

The operational level in Buncefield, as a large-scale incident, can be identified as the third type, i.e. multijurisdictional and multiagency support. Additionally, ICS has various levels, which can be divided into command section, finance section, logistics section, planning section, and operations section (Irwin). The level of command can be outlined in the following structure (Figure 1):

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Command structure Levels (Irwin)
Figure 1: Command structure Levels (Irwin)

In large-scale incidents such as the Buncefield incident, the coordination and collaboration between various agencies are essential, specifically because the scale of the incident is far beyond the local level of a single company. In that regard, the essence of the command level can be seen in “developing, directing, and maintaining communication and collaboration with the multiple agencies on-site, working with the local officials, the public, and the media to provide up-to-date information regarding the disaster” (Haddow, Bullock and Coppola 111).

Dynamic risk assessment and action plan

As the situation in the Buncefield incident implied a rapidly changing environment, a dynamic risk assessment should have been implemented. Dynamic Risk Assessment (DRA) is an essential component of ICS, which the main purpose is making sure that “safety is at the forefront of command decisions and is clearly understood and demonstrated” (Fire Services Change Programme). Thus, DRA can be defined as a process of risk assessment carried out in a changing environment, where what is being assessed is developing as the process itself is being undertaken” (Fire Services Change Programme 3.5). The stages of DRA in the Buncefield incident would have resulted in the following action plan:

The initial stage of the incident – the stage which is implemented on the arrival of the Incident Commander, comprised of the following steps:

  1. Evaluation of the situation, the task, and the teams.
  2. Selection of safe systems of work.
  3. Assessment of the selected systems.
  4. Introduction of additional control measures.
  5. Re-assessment of systems of work and the additional control measures.

The development of the stage of the incident – a stage occurring in case the incident develops to the extent that sectors are designated. Such a stage occurred when a follow-up fire occurred the engulfing the 23 storage tanks. In that regard, the following steps would have been appropriate at this stage:

  1. Each sector will be supervised by the Sector Commander.
  2. A safety officer will report with each sector commander.
  3. Making considerations for changing the steps outlined at the initial stages, e.g. changing fire-fighting tactics, changing operational activities, monitoring personnel, assessment of risks to the people and the environment, etc.

Closing Stage of the incident – the final stage of the incident, which is comprised of the following activities:

  1. Maintaining control –making sure that the operations outlined in the previous sections are maintained until the last minute.
  2. Personnel welfare –constant monitoring of physical conditions
  3. Incident debrief –the format appropriate for an incident of Buncefield scale implies a formal debrief, in which open, supportive, and constructive discussion of all aspects of the incident will be implemented (Fire Services Change Programme 3.5-3.9).

The roles and the responsibilities of public agencies

In an incident of such scale, it can be seen that there are might be more than one public agency involved. In that regard, considering the number of tasks involved in the incident, i.e. fire-fighting, people rescue, evacuation, and traffic management, several public agencies would have been involved within the practice of ICS. The cooperation of different agencies within ICS is named Unified Command. The definition of Unified Command revolves around “the application of ICS when there is more than one agency with incident jurisdiction or when incidents cross political jurisdictions” (US Department of Transportation 7). It can be seen that in the case on Buncefield, the Unified Command referred to incident agencies, rather than political, and in that regard, the agencies might include:

  • Fire fighting department – localizing and stopping the fire from spreading further. The range of duties also expands to cover such responsibilities as assessment of incidents, protecting the scene, containing and responding to incidents involving hazardous materials.
  • Police and local authorities – evacuation, traffic management, and maintaining public safety. The range of duties also expands to cover such responsibilities as securing the incident scene, assisting responders to assess the incident scene, establishing emergency access routes, etc.
  • Health Protection agencies – assessing health risks and helping the injured through providing medical treatment to the injured, transporting the victims to the nearest medical center for additional help, and helping the unified command on the incident scene.
  • Environmental agencies – assessing and reporting the environmental risks.

In that regard, it should be stated that for the Unified Command to properly operate, their communication and the collaboration of their efforts are of major importance. In that regard, the involvement of the agencies can be structured mostly within the planning level and the operations level of ICS. For example, the planning section might involve health, safety, and environment, while operational support at the operations level might also involve all of the aforementioned. In that regard, it can be assumed that each of the agencies mentioned earlier was present at the Buncefield incident, but the role of the Unified Command Structure is to increase the effectiveness of each agency. This can be achieved within the ICS through “obtaining consensus on operational strategy, agreeing expectations, reducing confrontation and minimizing duplication of effort during a response” (Cameron 65).

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The liaison with the media

Effective communication with the media is an essential component of ICS, and in that regard, it can be stated that coordinating the release of information on the situation and the response efforts in incidents of such scale is essential. The latter is the responsibility of the Liaison Officer and the Public Information Officer. Accordingly, the absence of coordination might result in false information being distributed among the population and accordingly, leading to panic and serious injuries. The media can shape the actions of the public and those directly involved in the distress situation, where such involvement might contribute to safety, success, and panic control.

Accordingly, the exact opposite effect might be witnessed when bad or distorted communication is established between the respondents of an incident and the media. The latter will likely lead to that the informational gaps about the incident will be filled with unproven facts and speculations. Similarly, an effective inter-agency liaison with other agencies will lead to effective coordination of operational activities, and in a case such as the Buncefield incident, in which several incidents were involved, the coordination would be a critical factor.

The management of the information and the collaboration with media is achieved through simple coordination. First, the media inquiries are received and handled by the Information Officer. Second, the representative of each agency involved in the rescue, the Incident Commander, and the Liaison Officer collect information through regular debriefs. Finally, the Information Officer will coordinate the release of the collected information through a press release which will be received by media agents and released to the public.

Conclusion

It can be concluded that the implementation of the Incident Command System would have been beneficial in the Buncefield incident. In that regard, with the lessons learned, it is recommended that such a system is implemented regularly, and which will be able to handle an incident of various scales and reduce the possible damage. ICS is not related to specific action guidelines, which will change the way any of the responsible agencies will handle the incident. ICS merely establishes the foundation through which incidents will be managed through developing a set of policies, through which these agencies will collaborate,

eliminating conflicts and doubling their efforts. Additionally, the flexibility of the system allows it to be able to manage incidents of any scale, in which the expansion and the contraction of necessary structures and units will eliminate the cases when the resources are not sufficient or overestimated.

Works Cited

Cameron, Keith H. “An International Company’s Approach to Managing Major Incidents.” Disaster Prevention and Management 3 2 (1994): 61-67. Print.

Fire Services Change Programme. “National Incident Command System”. 2007. Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Web.

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Haddow, George D., Jane A. Bullock, and Damon P. Coppola. Introduction to Emergency Management. Butterworth-Heinemann Homeland Security Series. 3rd ed. Amsterdam ; Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2007. Print.

Irwin, Robert L. “The Incident Command System (ICS)”. Disaster Response Online Book. Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance. 2010. Web.

UK Resilience. “Incident: Explosion and Fire at Buncefield Oil Terminal”. 2009. UK Resilience. Web.

US Department of Transportation. “Simplified Guide to the Incident Command System “. 2006. US Department of Transportation. Web.

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