Months after a fertilizer plant explosion in Central Texas killed 15 people, including 10 first responders, a university-based program that provides information about chemical risks to firefighters is about to lose its federal funding.
Funding for E-Plan, based at the University of Texas at Dallas, is scheduled to expire Aug. 31. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security had provided about $900,000 annually, but decided to cut it.
E-Plan collects reports that companies are required to file about the chemical hazards at their facilities and makes them available through a secure network to first responders. Its federal funding would run out just weeks after President Barack Obama issued an executive order Aug. 1, calling for improved safety and emergency coordination at the country's chemical facilities.
"When I look at this executive order, this is perfect -- that's exactly what E-Plan does," Ron Bose, director of a UTD center that runs the program, told the Dallas Morning News.
While some large city fire departments have developed their own systems to provide chemical hazard information, most of the state's smaller departments -- many volunteer like West's -- turn to paper records.
"Most of them rely basically on a three-ring binder in the cab of the firetruck," said Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association of Texas and a volunteer fire chief.
If the first responders to the West Fertilizer Co. plant on April 17 had been able to access to E-Plan, they would have received a standard warning for an ammonium-nitrate fire: Back away. A fire at the plant set off an explosion that destroyed blocks of homes, businesses and schools.
What started the fire has not been determined, but it destabilized the tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the site. Firefighters and paramedics who rushed to the fire were killed in the explosion.
The state of Texas passes on the so-called Tier II reports, which are filed with the Department of State Health Services, to E-Plan, but does not support E-Plan financially. The amount the state spends on its Tier II collection is less than it receives in filing fees from companies holding hazardous chemicals.
Firefighters can't access the state's database of the reports directly. They can be authorized for access to E-Plan if they request it, but few have done so.
E-Plan receives Tier II reports from 38 states.