Lesson learned: Emergency communication system crashed in '99 pipeline disaster

Firefighters from Tosco Refinery spray foam on hot spots along Woburn Street after a gasoline pipeline exploded sending fire down Whatcom Creek on June 10. 1999.
Firefighters from Tosco Refinery spray foam on hot spots along Woburn Street after a gasoline pipeline exploded sending fire down Whatcom Creek on June 10. 1999. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

The first Bellingham Fire Department engine arrived at Whatcom Falls Park on June 10, 1999, to find a haze of gas vapors hovering 8 feet above cars driving by on Woburn Street.

The engine was called out to investigate a hazardous odor, but the gas cloud prompted a fire captain to call for more firefighters and upgrade the department's response.

They began evacuating the park and businesses on Iowa Street, closed the stretch of Woburn Street near the park, and tried to determine the source of the gas leak.

What happened next is well chronicled in the annals of Bellingham's history, but if it happened again, the fire department's immediate reaction would be similar to what it was that June day, Fire Chief Bill Boyd said.

But how quickly residents would hear about it and where they would find that information would be starkly different.

Boyd was the department's public information officer that day. The only ways to communicate with the public were to get the information on the airwaves of KGMI radio and KVOS TV.

Cell phones failed and phone lines were overwhelmed. Information about what had happened, what could happen next and what the public should do about it didn't reach as many people as it should have, Boyd said.

As a result, people began panicking and flooded the 911 dispatch center with calls, many mistakenly believing the black cloud of smoke from the pipeline blast was from a neighbor's house burning.

Now, with Internet and cell-phone use prevalent, information should be able to flow much faster. While the area has more cell-phone towers and network providers, there's no guarantee they would be able to function in another pipeline explosion, Boyd said. But the city's office of emergency management can launch Web sites specifically designed to provide emergency information that can handle the spike in traffic after a disaster.

Web sites run by The Bellingham Herald, KGMI and other media sources also would be able to provide that information.

Twitter accounts, text messages and e-mails would ensure that more people knew what was happening almost immediately, Boyd said.

The city also has the ability to call residences in the affected area automatically and inform them of what happened and what they should do next, but this system relies on the land lines not failing, Boyd said.

"We had an evolving, escalating event that was difficult to get a handle on," Boyd said of the 1999 disaster. "The communications system crashed in the city. We've learned a lot since then."

Boyd said the fire department and the county governments also have formed offices of emergency management, which have improved their responses to major disasters. Both offices collaborate and create emergency operations and call centers, which aid in planning responses, getting information out and managing the crisis.

They used such an approach to the flooding that inundated Whatcom County in January and can get the center operating in 45 minutes, Boyd said.

Joe Bates, the county's communications and information coordinator, worked for KVOS at the time of the explosion. He covered it for KVOS and served as a public information officer for the emergency operations center during the January floods.

"If that (explosion) happened today, it would be everywhere on the Internet," Bates said. "Now everyone can cover an event."

The National Transportation Safety Board, in its 2002 report on the pipeline explosion, commended the emergency response.

"There was a certain amount of heroism that went on there," Boyd said. "It went about as good as it could go. We're pretty proud of that."

Still, the pipeline's explosion made everyone feel vulnerable. Boyd said the department used that to its gain in implementing changes in how it manages emergencies and communicates with the public.

"That explosion shook everyone's sense of security," Boyd said. "We capitalized on that. A disaster of this magnitude is not a fire department event, it's not a city government event - it's a community-wide event. You have to be personally prepared to take care of yourself."


Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd's advice in case of another pipeline leak or similar danger:

Leave the area near any blast zone and don't return until told to do so.

Stay off phone lines (cell and land) to avoid overloading networks.

Tune into KGMI-AM 790 or go to Web sites for the city of Bellingham or The Bellingham Herald for information.

Avoid breathing in fumes or smoke.

Expect to be self-sufficient for up to three days while emergency responders deal with the crisis.

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