Here’s what one volunteer fire department is doing to prevent another West explosion

Investigations
ammonium nitrate

Investigative summary:

Three years after the West fertilizer plant explosion, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board sent out a list of safety recommendations. They included an unfulfilled requirement for all Texas volunteer firefighters to be trained on fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate, the same chemical compound that exploded in a deadly fire in 2013 that killed 12 first responders, mostly volunteer firefighters. Only a small number of the 30,000 volunteers statewide have taken the voluntary FGAN course created after the West catastrophe.

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WEST, Texas (KXAN) — Just in time to beat evening rush hour, we hit the highway heading out of Austin. The downtown skyline fades away in the rearview mirror; the sun sinks a little lower in the sky. Silos, old wooden barns and perfectly plowed rows of farmland come into view as I gaze out the passenger window. 

With 34 miles added to the odometer, the GPS tells us to turn into a gravel parking lot which leads to a very plain metal building. A red fire engine and a brush truck are parked off to the right that say Taylor V.F.D. on the side. We must be in the right spot. 

We walk through the double glass doors and see a sign-up sheet along with white, plastic round tables taking over the room. A man who clearly looks like a seasoned veteran is walking around putting thick paperback books he calls the “firefighters’ bible” at each seat.

On this particular Monday night, the Taylor Volunteer Fire Department is hosting a fire academy. The training is not required to be a volunteer in Texas, but Taylor VFD Chief Billy Hughes puts a lot of pride in his well-educated team and says the extra knowledge is a great first step for those who have higher aspirations of making firefighting a career.

Chief Hughes also sent a handful of volunteer firefighters to a course offered by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service that just rolled out last year which solely focuses on fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate — also called FGAN. In layman’s terms, farmers use it to help their crops grow — and firefighters care because it’s highly explosive.

“We have facilities in our district that have the fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate in a large quantity for commercial sale, but also the end-user, the farmer himself has that stored at his property — not in those quantities but enough that will definitely affect us in our job if we were responding to a barn fire, a grass fire that’s threatening a structure of a barn,” Chief Hughes said.

‘If we don’t share these lessons, then more firefighters could lose their lives in the future’

Even if you’re not familiar with the chemical compound FGAN, chances are you’ve heard about the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion. In April 2013, 15 people lost their lives after a fire caused 30 tons of FGAN to explode. Most of the victims were members of the West Volunteer Fire Department and other nearby volunteer fire departments.

Three years after the blast, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board completed its investigation, identified problems and sent a list of recommendations to a number of agencies.

One of those recommendations dealt with volunteer firefighter training. The federal agency called on the State Firefighters’ and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas to create a required certification for all volunteer firefighters in Texas to receive special training on FGAN.

“With the amount of ammonium nitrate that you have concentrated in certain facilities in the state of Texas, with its strong agricultural economic component, we feel that this is an extremely important issue, and if we don’t share these lessons, then more firefighters could lose their lives in the future,” said CSB Executive Authority Kristen Kulinowski.

Shortly after the West explosion, TEEX created a voluntary course to help train firefighters on industrial emergency response. Once the CSB’s recommendation came down, it then created a course specific to FGAN.

The FGAN course was rolled out in 2018, but a certification has yet to be created. 

“There’s a lot more to creating the certification other than waving a magic wand and, poof, you’ve got a certification,” said Chris Barron, Executive Director of SFFMA.

Barron says there’s no other FGAN certification in the country, and it would take a lot of time and money to make it happen in Texas when in reality there’s only a small number of volunteer firefighters in the state who have nearby facilities of concern. According to 2013 data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, there were 121 facilities in 71 Texas counties that store more than 10,000 pounds of FGAN.

Firefighters with FGAN training

Explore this interactive map to see which volunteer fire departments have gone through FGAN training and which ones have not.

According to information KXAN requested from TEEX, only 25 volunteer firefighters have taken the course out of around 30,000 volunteers statewide. It is designed to be a “train-the-trainer” course where select people from each department take it and then share the knowledge learned with the rest of their department.

TEEX data shows 574 volunteer firefighters have taken the industrial emergency response course, which still does not make up a large overall percentage of Texas VFDs. Barron agrees that the number could be higher.

“I think it will grow. It’s still new,” Barron said. “In the fire service, it takes a while for it to catch on.” 

The CSB sent the following statement once KXAN shared the data from TEEX on how many volunteer firefighters have gone through its FGAN training:

The CSB’s goal in making recommendations is to avoid needless death or injury from incidents involving hazardous substances. We continue to advocate adoption of critical safety recommendations from our investigation into the catastrophic incident at the West Fertilizer Company, which left 15 people dead and hundreds injured. We believe a training certification program for fire departments that may encounter fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate is a necessary action to save first responders’ lives and will continue to press for adoption of this recommendation.

-Interim Executive Kristen Kulinowski

No requirements for volunteer firefighters in Texas

Volunteer firefighters in Texas are not required to learn anything before responding to a fire, and training is left up to each department.

North Hays County Fire Rescue, which is part volunteer, likes the flexibility of focusing on what its crews will most likely encounter in their area, like wildfires or trucks carrying hazardous loads. 

“We always practice for an all-hazards type of approach, and that’s what we have to do, be an all-hazards type of organization,” said Lt. Jeff O’Leary, Assistant Chief of the North Hays County Fire Rescue.

Its volunteers have not taken the specialized FGAN course, and there are no facilities nearby that store it in large quantities.

Back in Taylor, we jump in the brush truck for a quick spin around the area with Chief Hughes. He and his team have been meeting with individual farmers to find out how much FGAN they store in their barns at any given time so the firefighters will know how to respond when an emergency pops up.

Chief Hughes supports a certification course.

“I would like to see it as a requirement from the state level, absolutely,” he said. “Anything that’s going to save a life.”

KXAN Photojournalist Ed Zavala contributed to this report.

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