It is estimated that over 220,000 vehicles travel daily over the stretch of interstate damaged in last week's fire, just north of midtown Atlanta, GA. As commuters struggle with the new reality in a city already plagued by traffic woes, Georgia Department of Transportation officials, investigators and fire and safety officials search for answers in the wake of the disaster. At the same time, those responsible for establishing and enforcing codes and requirements aimed at preventing these incidents look to learn and adapt in the wake of the event.
A great deal of credit must be given to law enforcement officials who were able to address traffic re-routing quickly, so that by the time the overpass gave way to the intense blaze, the area had been cleared. The same must also be said for the fire crews who, despite rush hour traffic conditions, were able to contain the blaze and contain the damage. Anyone who bore witness to the jaw-dropping event as it unfolded on the national news must have been relieved, and amazed, that not a single injury or death occurred.
Now, as the long, painstaking process begins of rebuilding, and residents and visitors patiently implement changes to their daily schedules and travel routes, there is another difficult and challenging task that must be undertaken. Code requirements for storing and protecting hazardous material must be re-visited.
Were those requirements adhered to? Are such requirements sufficient as written? Is enforcement more at issue? If requirements were overlooked, what were they and why? What should have been implemented to avoid such massive damage to essential infrastructure? Here are just some of the requirements that will have to be reviewed as this damaging situation is scrutinized.
The International Fire Code (IFC) states clearly in the latest 2015 edition of that document, Chapter 50 (Hazardous Materials-General Provisions), Section 5001.3.3.6, under the heading of “Protection of hazardous materials” the following:
Safeguards shall be provided to minimize the risk of exposing hazardous materials to a fire or physical damage whereby such exposure could endanger or lead to the endangerment of people or property.
Were such safeguards in place? If so, such safeguards, as the IFC mandates, should have prevented exposure of the conduit to fire which, in turn, led to a clear and present danger to people and property.
The National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Code, NFPA 1, (2015 edition) concurs in how it addresses hazardous materials in Chapter 60 of that document and references, in turn, NFPA 400, the Hazardous Materials Code.
According to NFPA 1, outdoor storage areas for hazardous material are allowed but need to be controlled areas that are under strict requirements. There is a maximum allowable quantity of materials mandated and if the storage area exceeds a certain square footage, the hazardous material has to be properly divided into groupings and each grouping separated from another by a specific distance requirement.
Smoking is prohibited within 25 feet of controlled, outdoor storage areas and signage needs to be provided accordingly. Such outside storage locations and the area around them have to be clear of any combustible debris and such outdoor areas are required to be at least 20 feet from a street or public way.
These requirements merely skim the surface of a discussion that must delve more deeply to determine if these requirements and other related regulatory standards were adhered to, if they need to be improved upon or if it all came down in this case to a lack of enforcement.
Thanks again to the quick response of first responders, the fire protection industry can re-address the enforcement of hazardous material storage requirements without having to do so with loss of life in hindsight, as has too often been the case along the way to improved fire protection. If there is anything positive that can come out of this major fire incident, it’s that the discussion to follow will ensure that a similar incident with such grim potential for loss of property and life doesn’t happen again.