Interview 1 (Disaster Relief: Public Safety and Public Opinion after a Plant Emergency)
Several unique considerations came forth from the discussion with my first interviewee. This person had a remarkably similar experience, and thus was very insightful. Recall my scenario dealt with the question: what is appropriate action during an accident or emergency? Specifically, my scenario addressed public safety and reaction during a roof collapse. The first interviewee began his business career as an engineer. During the course of his career he was promoted numerous times, serving for an extended period as a plant manager before moving to the corporate office. Before retiring from his Fortune 500 Company, he was a vice president. The relevant portion of this resume is his time spent as a plant manager. Under his administration, he experienced both a plant explosion and a roof collapse due to snow.
The first piece of advice he offered was an effective plant should have a disaster relief procedure. This procedure would have detailed instruction of what actions to take in the event of certain classes of emergencies. He noted that his predecessor did not allow the local fire chief access to the plant. One change he made as an administrator was to invite such officials to tour the plant. He guided them through the facilities. During the tour, they discussed the various hazards found throughout the estate, especially those that would be important to emergency responders that are unfamiliar with the place. Tanks with dangerous contents were labeled for responders.
He also noted that the plant itself had preemptive disaster plans. Easy examples of such contingencies are tornado and fire drills. It was pointed out that these drills were completely random and unannounced. Thus he could monitor the level of preparedness of the plant employees. Gross errors such as evacuating to the parking lot during tornado drills or running inside during a fire can then be addressed during follow-up meetings. Such emergency plans, more importantly, prepare employees for a disaster and give authorities an initial action plan to minimize consequences.
I found these two considerations particularly interesting when compared to my response to the "Courage and Research" guest lecture. In my reflection, I noted that each factor in the risk equation (risk = probability x severity) can be a target for engineering solutions to the hazard. It was also observed that engineering out the severity of an event (based on the assumption it will happen) can quickly increase the price of a unit without adding to its effectiveness. It was also discussed that certain events can hardly be designed against. The example provided earlier was the event of a meteor impact. Clearly, creating a meteor-proof plant is beyond the capacity of almost any company. This interview brought to mind other methods of decreasing event severity. Much like the hypothetical meteor strike, engineering around a tornado is nearly impossible.
This interview reminded me there are methods other than engineering that can reduce the severity of an event without significantly increasing the unit cost. Emergency training is an excellent example. The discussion with the interviewee highlighted training the people in the plant to react safely to disasters such as fires and tornadoes, and training emergency responders to be aware of special hazards in the plant.
Such methods for preparing a facility for an emergency were related. The interviewee then detailed actions that were taken following an emergency. Referring to my scenario, he stressed obtaining as much information as possible from the person reporting the incident. If the plant contains hazardous vapor tanks, ask the caller if there are any obvious signs of leakage or odors in the air. Such initial information may help to frame the magnitude of the problem. At this point, the crisis management plan should guide response actions. He noted that it helped to imagine himself on trial as he made decisions, defending each of them before court. In this state of mind, it is easier to make choices for the general welfare, and also document your actions in ways that will be provable during latter investigations.
One of the first actions that would be taken is to notify the local fire department and other necessary emergency units. Corporate office should also be notified as soon as possible. Beginning here, I noticed many of the suggested actions are performed for a somewhat selfish purpose, but are pragmatically the same as actions that follow one of the basic ethical principles for engineers. The tendency is to pass decisions onto others to cover oneÕs self from blame. However, this is done in such a way as to avoid making decisions out of the individualÕs area of competence. Once a fire chief or other emergency responder is on the scene, it is their responsibility to call for a plant or town evacuation.
One of the first examples of this responsibility shifting is granting the fire chief authority to evacuate. The immediate concern for evacuation is for the plant, although depending on the severity of the event, the town may need to be vacated as well. Fortunately, industrial plots are not allowed in residential areas in the United States. Thus, there is typically time for responders to arrive at a location and then decide on evacuation without harm to innocent citizens. It was noted in the interview that it is possible to suggest actions to authorities while still allowing them to make the call and take the responsibility. In this case, one could ask the fire chief (or whomever is in charge), "when would be a good time to clear the plant?" Thus you can focus the attention of the chief on this issue while still allowing them to make the decision, rather than take an order.
Once the proper authorities are notified of the incident, a command center is established. This would be an office that served as the information hub of the plant during emergency response. There would be someone at the phone in this office around the clock, taking calls from responders, media, plant workers and family members, corporate office, etc. Response orders and media bulletins would also be issued from here.
To aid in documentation, at least one plant employee would be given the job of taking pictures. Roll after roll would be taken of damage and every stage of response and clean-up. Anything that may later be of interest to courts, insurance companies, the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA, or the corporate office would need to be visually recorded in detail.
The wording of my scenario begged attention to the question "how can public response to the disaster be controlled?" Again, this is delegated to an official censor. Working through the command center (which coordinates all communication in and out) this person would collect information and prepare press releases. This person would also work with the press to insure these official releases are printed in full and without alteration. These are the only statements given by the plant, and therefore highly desired by the press. The censor discusses with the press that statements must be presented in their original form and full length. Anyone who cannot agree to this is not granted the release. The censor also enforces these conditions, demanding retractions if they are violated.
A few other topics worth mentioning came up during the first interview. If the event requires clean-up or disposal of any hazardous waste, it is best to hire an outside company to handle and ship it. If anyone is injured, dispatch someone from Human Resources to the hospital. Someone from this office should note the severity of the injuries. They should also provide proper counseling, comfort to the injured persons and their families, and explanation of compensation and benefits.
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Cite this page:
"Interview 1 (Disaster Relief: Public Safety and Public Opinion after a Plant Emergency) "
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Wednesday, June 19, 2013