The US National Transportation Safety Board has been holding a few days of hearings into the San Bruno disaster. One snippet from the hearings surprised me more than most. The fire chief responsible for responding to the pipeline fire was unaware either that the pipeline existed or that a pipeline failure could result in such a devastating fire. He admitted that he should have known, but the point being made seems to be that PG&E should have been more proactive in informing the fire department about its pipelines. From the point of view of the fire chief, if you don’t know what you don’t know, you are not even going to ask the right questions to find out.
A number of pipeline operators run emergency exercises that are full simulations in which they involve the emergency services. It seems to be an eminently sensible approach, so that the fire brigade and police are not completely unprepared if the unthinkable happens. But I don’t know if all operators do that.
It’s possibly even more important for our liquids pipeline operators. If gas from a high pressure pipeline is going to burn it is more likely to ignite immediately and the fire will remain local to the pipeline failure. Liquids can spread a long way, and are more likely to ignite later.
At a POG seminar a few years ago a representative of the WAG pipeline in Victoria reported on a leak beside the Geelong freeway. The first emergency services to arrive were the police, who initially parked right on top of the leak! Lack of communication there. Fortunately the liquid was relatively non-volatile.
In contrast, another liquids pipeline manager told me of an emergency exercise in which the scenario was a large spill of volatile hydrocarbons near a school in a semi-rural area. Notwithstanding the potential danger to the school children, the fire officer in charge said the risk was too great send his men in to evacuate the school. A difficult decision, but at least one that was based on an informed understanding.
The emergency services need to know, and if pipeline operators don’t tell them they probably won’t know to ask for themselves.