In 2002 I was contacted by the Westinghouse Brigade (then) Chief Carlos Aguilar with a request to provide two industrial incident command classes for all plant incident commanders (ICs) and senior management staff.
Located in the capitol city of Columbia, South Carolina, the Westinghouse Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility manufactures nuclear fuel and assemblies for power-producing reactors worldwide. The facility is located in an industrial setting on a 1,200-acre parcel and employs approximately 900 personnel in a three-shift configuration. The brigade is responsible for round-the-clock service delivery.*
Once UF6 gas is converted into a powder and made into a pellet, water cannot be used as an extinguishing agent anywhere in the process. The plant operated with a zero tolerance for a nuclear criticality incident, so it’s conceivable that a roof fire may be allowed to burn to prevent such an event.
Besides the radioactive and hazardous materials contained on the site, additional risks include Level “A & B” hazmat, EMS, structure fire protection, confined space, as well as high and low angle rescue. This brigade meets the level four criteria of NFPA 1081, or can be called a full-service response agency.
The primary regulator (due to the radioactive nature of the product) is the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The site follows additional regulations in the US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which govern conduct of emergency operations. State and local regulators also provide additional regulatory oversight.
The brigade consists of approximately 90 members who have full-time production jobs within the facility. Currently the one exception to this is a full-time ERO (emergency response & operations) director. The significant contribution of this position in the transformation cannot be overstated, since it has provided a dedicated resource to the ERO. Previously, this person was part-time with other non-ERO responsibilities. The site is working toward having three full-time ICs whose duties will include administration, training, and emergency plan development (to name a few).
The meeting
In late 2002 after the incident command classes had been completed, I met with Chief Carlos Aguilar and the head of EH&S (Sam McDonald) to discuss the future direction of the brigade, and the company’s goal of making it one of the best in the country. At that time it was agreed that I would conduct equipment and performance audits.
Once on site, Carlos (who got his start in emergency hazmat response while in the military and later as an environmental and chemical engineer) indicated that while the company met all regulatory requirements, he recognized an opportunity to improve service delivery due to the following brigade challenges: lack of a fire engine and dependence on hose houses; shared bunker gear; 30-minutes self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs); no high/low angle capability; no medical first responders; inconsistent training; long response times; and the emergency operations center (EOC) dictating incident command strategy and tactics.
Audits were conducted and the resulting recommendations provided gap analysis for the company to prepare for and make changes to, in respect of equipment and training.
At the conclusion of the first audits, I advised Sam and Carlos that if they were willing to commit time, money, and implement administrative changes, I envisioned three steps to elevating the brigade to the best-in-class operation. They said yes.
Response time and time fix
Because brigade members have production jobs, they must respond on foot from their work stations to the brigade building, then bunker up and stand by for deployment instructions.
Once assembled, they receive instructions on deployment. The average time for this function in 2003 was 45 minutes. For level A hazmat operations, it was approximately 60-75 minutes until an entry team could be prepared.
Some fixes were simple. For instance; if a leak, smoke, or medical emergency was confirmed, the brigade assembly procedure was to be initiated immediately without waiting for the IC to arrive on scene. Additional recommended changes were to:
– Create a written standard operating guideline (SOG) that outlined specific responsibilities for first responders, eg. the first arriving team leader (TL) to the brigade building to bunker up, put on the OPs vest and contact the IC for instructions. And instead of waiting for all members to assemble, as soon as four members arrived, to man the engine and respond as directed.
– Create an SOG and provide training on assembling a designated set of hose lays – such as forward, reverse, progressive and above ground with stand pipe (no standpipes were available to the top of the 50’ roof as determined by the first audit).
– Purchase fire engine and portable monitors, and equip them with 1,000 feet of five-inch LDH; require use of a manifold or porta hydrant on every hose lay. (A newer hazmat van has since been purchased with a command module attached, and the old hazmat van converted into a high/low angle and hazmat support vehicle.)
Once the SOG had been instituted and all shift/members received training, drills were conducted and the response time cut in half to around 20 minutes.
(Recently the site had a fully involved vehicle fire in the employee parking lot. From IC alert to assembly of the brigade and a 600-foot hose lay, water/foam was on the fire in 17 minutes.)
My observations of ICs during training and unannounced exercises indicated that current emergency procedures were somewhat awkward to use. Many ICs struggled with the mandatory administrative notifications, at the expense of developing strategy and tactics.
As a result, site-specific command worksheets were developed, and problem identification and selection of the proper response model (based upon given resources at the time of the incident) were prioritized.
We addressed the training issue by requiring that brigade members trained to OSHA and NFPA standards, such as OSHA 29 CFR 1910.120-NFPA 600-1081-1403-1001. To validate the training, in-house instructors received train the trainer classes and became certified instructors.
Brigade members were required to print and sign their name every time they received training. Every brigade member was provided a pre-job safety brief prior to any training. All team leaders and ICs were provided with incident safety officer training classes.
The site’s current Emergency Response Organization Director, Steve Carver, identified the building blocks needed to form a successful volunteer emergency response team (ERT) as being:
– management support
– proper training and training facilities
– regular drills
– up-to-date personal protective equipment (PPE) and general equipment
– adequate emergency procedures and
– a motivated team that feels like they have some input in the future of the response team
The current training program at Columbia consists of yearly trips to Texas A&M (for industrial firefighting) and the local Aiken Technical College (confined space training).
Eight-hour refresher training is held on site each year for interior firefighting, hazardous material response and medical response. Incident commanders, team leaders and EOC members also receive advanced training, and members attend various fire chiefs’ courses each year.
Other training conducted includes apparatus operator and radiological response training as well as monthly sessions on site-specific emergency response situations (eg: foam application and anhydrous ammonia spills). The Columbia site’s training area consists of a burn building, tower for rope rescue, vertical/horizontal tanks for confined space rescue and hazmat training, and a maze.
Audits are used to verify that the site is complying with all legal/regulatory requirements, as well as, the site-imposed requirements for an industrial response team. The structure of the site’s ERT allows for a steering committee to make recommendations for equipment purchases and training opportunities. The committee rotates in shifts each year to allow all members to have input.
Other team motivational tools used include a competition for representing the team in the state firefighter challenge, and a yearly recognition event to which team members can invite a guest and have an opportunity to receive an award.
Of the many industrial facilities I had been in, this facility had the best set of pre-plans I had ever seen; however, the pre-plans were printed in black and white (without photos), which could make it difficult to readily extrapolate information during an emergency.
At my urging, the site is in the process of developing specific selected target-hazard, quick-access pre-plans that provide material safety data sheets (MSDSs), first-aid, shower locations, mitigation info. ERG standoff distances, shutoffs, and total liquid capacity if bermed. Photos of critical valves and electrical shutoffs are included.
The Columbia site took many more steps to improve brigade operations; however, space here does not allow me to mention them all.
During the improvement process, change was difficult for some to accept, but organizing feedback committees received ‘buy-in’ from brigade members, and encouraged them to read books like It’s Your Ship.
They also supported the brigade’s extracurricular activities, such as participating in a firefighters’ combat challenge where the Columbia brigade finished sixth out of 30 teams. These are all indicators of the positive cultural change at the facility.
Since I began working with the Columbia brigade, Sam retired and Carlos accepted a different position in another Westinghouse facility. The current plant manager, Dave Precht, EH&S Manager Marc Rosser and ERO Director Steve Carver have supported the original commitment to improvement and I’m convinced the outcome would have been much different had they not been supportive.
In my opinion, the Columbia brigade is now at level 2.75, very close to becoming a model on how to get from standard to best. Once they attain the level 3, the challenge will be to stay there.
*While the facility described here met all existing regulatory standards before this endeavor, it wanted to set a higher bar by implementing a transformation process.

Nominated by The University of Nevada, Reno Fire Science Academy, as Top Fire Instructor of the World (Fire & Rescue magazine, April 2008), Jim Powell has dedicated himself to fire fighting and instructing firefighters. He has nearly 30 years of fire fighting experience as well as many years of bringing first-hand knowledge to the classroom. “The students love him and appreciate his candor, his seriousness and his sense of humor,” said Reno Fire Science Academy. Jim retired from Carson City Fire Department, Carson City, Nevada, in 1997, and today is the owner of All Clear Fire Training and Consulting. He can be reached at