Acid Leak Demonstrates Necessity of Strong Partnerships in Surry County, North Carolina
Late on a Friday night in September 2021, the multiple volunteer fire departments in Surry County, North Carolina, were dispatched to a cloud of smoke coming from a private citizen's barn in the Beulah area west of Mt. Airy. Upon arriving at the scene, the fire department responders quickly realized the cloud was not smoke from a structure fire, but rather chemical fumes from a leak originating inside the building. After determining that the source of the cloud was chemical in nature, the Surry County hazardous materials (HAZMAT) team was immediately contacted to respond.
There was some worry about the chemical cloud moving to the next town, as some time was needed to investigate the chemical substance and determine how best to proceed. Using social media and a mass emergency notification system, Surry County sent alerts to residents within 5 miles of the chemical cloud to notify them of the event. The area around the barn was evacuated and a perimeter was set up. The road on which the barn is located was temporarily closed, and traffic was rerouted during the response.
Surry County has a paid HAZMAT team that responded, and they worked with firefighters to determine that the source of the chemical cloud was a hydrochloric acid leak inside the building. According to a 2021 article from the Mount Airy News, ‘Chemical Cloud’ Prompts Emergency Response, the HAZMAT technicians neutralized the acid leak enough to lessen the chemical fumes and a cleaning company specializing in HAZMAT situations was called to finish cleaning the area.
Eric Southern, the Chief of Emergency Services for Surry County, shared, “For what this was and what could have happened, it all went really well.”
Responders used social media and the county's mass emergency notification system to alert residents of the incident. Yet, there were still some residents who were unaware that the chemical emergency was happening. After the event, it was determined that the county's mass emergency notification system automatically adds residents with a landline to the database, and residents with only a cell phone must sign up to receive emergency alerts. Surry County updated their emergency response plan based on this information. They worked with the county communications center to identify households without a landline and to do outreach and education about signing up for alerts from the emergency notification alert system.
Chief Southern stressed the importance of developing and maintaining strong relationships before a disaster happens. For example, the Surry County HAZMAT team has an existing relationship with the cleaning company that cleaned up the area of the response. This partnership supported a complete response.
Eric Southern, Chief of Emergency Services
Surry County Emergency Services
Opinions expressed are those of the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.