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    EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT


The following article has been written by Deborah Macfarlane, a Community Representative on the CICCC. 
It is posted on this web site with the approval of the CICCC.

London probably did not have an emergency management plan at the time of its Great Fire in 1666. Emergency management plans for the most part are a belated twentieth century response to industrial hazards, which did not begin to bedevil urban residents until the beginning of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century. Workers who clustered around the complexes had to learn to live with the dangers posed by the new technologies, and have done so ever since.

In Melbourne, industrial complexes have tended to be sited in the Western suburbs, often perilously close to residential areas. One such installation is Coode Island, which as everyone knows erupted just over ten years ago in flames and thick toxic smoke. The disaster has been the subject of close scrutiny: by a coronial inquest, an inquiry, a community consultative committee and, more recently, in a front-page article in The Sunday Age (February 10).

Clearly, as a member of the Coode Island Community Consultative Committee (CICCC) and the chair of the Emergency Management Sub-Committee, I consider the issue of Coode Island is an important one. The fire forced the evacuation of areas in Footscray and Kensington and made a lot of residents feel very insecure in their own homes. Despite this, as The Age article pointed out, there is still no mechanism in place to warn people in the surrounding community of impending danger or to allay their fears when emergency vehicles go racing past their doors.

Yet I believe the emphasis on the dangers posed by Coode Island is misplaced. Terminals Pty Ltd, the company whose tanks caused the disaster, has since spent millions of dollars upgrading plant, equipment and safety procedures at the terminal. Nor is that all. The company's former Australian general manager, Peter Reddie, the Victorian general manager, George Horman, the Coode manager, Carlo Fasolino and other Terminals employees have spent hundreds of hours informing community and government representatives about current management and future plans.

A look at the CICCC website (www.ciccc.org) demonstrates the quantity of information now available to the public. Plans for the site have been made available to residents at local libraries and council offices (particularly those of the Maribyrnong City Council), and several public meetings have been held over a number of years.

The new company on Coode Island, Marstel Terminals Pty Ltd, has also established a consultative committee and made its plans available to the interested public. The new tank complex proposed by Marstel accords with world's best practice, according to the advice of the Environment Protection Authority representatives on both the CICCC and the Marstel Committee.

It is true that very dangerous chemicals are being or will be stored on Coode. Community members on the CICCC are unanimous that these chemicals would be better stored elsewhere as the Coroner originally recommended, especially given the recent Docklands development, and other major residential developments in Footscray and Kensington built since the fire or planned for construction in the near future.

However, all members of the committee, which also includes representatives from the Maribyrnong and Melbourne City Councils, the EPA, Worksafe, Human Services and the Melbourne and Metropolitan Emergency Services Board, are aware that there are many chemical complexes in the Footscray area, which pose a greater threat to residents than does Coode Island. These are installations where chemicals are mixed together at high temperatures and high pressures, not just stored in tanks as they are at Coode. The press or the public does not examine these complexes with anything like the obsessive interest Coode attracts in a sort of "shut the stable door after the horse has bolted" mentality. 

Many people in the local community are not aware of risks posed by any chemical complex in the area other than Coode Island and know even less about what to do if an emergency should arise.

The Emergency Management Sub-Committee of the CICCC did come up with a proposal as to what the community could do in the event of an emergency at Coode Island. This involved Terminals Pty Ltd undertaking to notify any incident involving danger to the community by contacting a local radio station which would inform listeners of developments and what safety measures to take. The station would also broadcast messages to reassure residents if incidents did not pose a threat.

However, few other chemical companies in the area would agree to the scheme. Without a coordinated approach involving all local chemical companies, the effectiveness of the proposed measure was likely to be minimal.

There is no legislation to compel companies handling dangerous goods in any particular locality to cooperate with each other on emergency management issues, yet without such coordination the community is unlikely to know what to do in an emergency. One of the few exceptions is the Altona petrochemical complex. Here the companies occupying the site have informed the local community that a special siren will be sounded in an emergency situation. The siren is tested once a month so that people living nearby know what it sounds like and a reasonably comprehensive education program has been conducted. 

This has happened entirely because of the significant goodwill shown by the companies involved. As stated above no legislation or regulation makes it mandatory for such cooperation to occur.

If agreement has been slow in coming from the companies, it has been even harder to get the emergency services to agree on what constitutes the most appropriate way to handle an emergency situation involving a chemical complex. A siren, they say, might actually cause people to run into rather than out of danger. It is not like the situation in Hawaii, for example, where all citizens are aware of the menace posed by tsunamis, conduct regular emergency drills and know they must head for the hills if a siren indicating approaching tidal waves is sounded. With incidents involving chemicals, factors such as wind speed, wind direction, time of day, rain, temperature, humidity, and so on mean that each emergency situation has its own unique set of factors and advice to the community must vary according to these factors.

It is certain that instructing a large multilingual community what to do in an industrial emergency is a very complex issue and requires the cooperation and coordination of many agencies with excellent communication procedures both internal and external, in place. Currently there exist State and local emergency management plans, but the final step - that of informing and advising the affected communities in a precise and comprehensible fashion - has rarely been taken.

Even communication between agencies involved in emergency management may be faulty. In June last year, 4000 litres of petrol was spilt into the Maribyrnong River. Although the incident potentially had disastrous consequences for residents, the local populace was not warned and the Maribyrnong City Council itself was not notified officially until seven hours after the spill first occurred.

However, this undesirable situation may shortly be about to change, in the Footscray area at least, due to the Community Information Alert Project, funded and supported jointly by the Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner and the Maribyrnong City Council. Robyn Betts from the OESC and Theo Pykoulas, the Municipal Emergency Response Officer from the Council are currently reviewing emergency measures for all installations handling hazardous chemicals in the Footscray area, not just Coode Island. 

Ms Betts stated that "this community centred emergency management plan is being driven by the partnership of the OESC with Maribyrnong City Council and the developing goodwill and collaboration between the major hazard facility industries, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the EPA, Worksafe and the consultation committees linked to the industries." The project officers have conducted a series of interviews with local groups, individuals and companies and sent out 5000 questionnaires, over 700 of which were returned. Ms Betts commented, "This represents a considerable body of information as to the opinions and wishes of all those affected. While it is very difficult to come up with a practical solution for the community, we do not intend to let the whole issue be put in the too-hard basket."

The CICCC awaits Ms Betts' report later this year with keen interest.

However, a truly effective solution to this longstanding problem cannot be achieved without a significant investment of time and resources by the Commonwealth and State governments as well as by industry. It should not be left to the goodwill of companies such as Terminals to arrange their own piecemeal emergency response plans for the communities within their "shadow". It is also unrealistic to expect cash-strapped councils in working class industrial areas, struggling to provide services to their community, to bear the major responsibility for the issues and pressures presented by their proximity to major hazard facilities.

Without ongoing systematic commitment by State and Commonwealth governments - and to date this has not been forthcoming - solutions of the type about to be proposed by Ms Betts are likely to have limited efficacy. This applies not only to Coode Island and the Footscray area, but to all areas affected by major hazard facilities. Surely after 300 years of coexistence with industry and with access to the marvels of 21st Century communication systems we can serve and protect the populations of our cities better than that.

 

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