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One Step Toward Reducing Chemical Disasters: Sharing with Communities Where Those Chemicals Are Located

This is a guest post by emergency planner Tom Bergman.

Dirty label on leaking chemical drum

Attempting to access, collect, and share information on where chemicals are produced, stored, and transported is a challenge for state and local emergency responders trying to prevent the type of chemical disasters that devastated West, Texas, and Geismar, Louisiana, in 2013. (killbox/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

The year 2013 saw two major chemical disasters in the United States, which tragically killed 17 people and injured hundreds more. As a result, President Obama signed Executive Order 13650 (EO 13650) August 1, 2013, followed by a report the next year to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities and to reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals to workers and communities.

As part of this directive, six federal agencies and departments, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), formed a work group to investigate how to better help local communities plan for and respond to emergencies involving hazardous substances.

Out of these work group discussions came one area needing improvement which might sound surprising to the average person: data sharing. Specifically, the work group highlighted the need to improve data sharing among the various federal programs that regulate hazardous substances and the state and local communities where those chemicals are produced, stored, and transported.

EPA works with NOAA on the chemical spill planning and response software suite known as CAMEO. These software programs offer communities critical tools for organizing and sharing precisely this type of chemical data.

Lots of Chemicals, Lots of Data

Many parts of the federal government, including several of the agencies involved in the work group, regulate hazardous chemicals in a number of ways to keep our communities safe. That means collecting information from industry on the presence or usage of hazardous substances in communities across the nation. It also results in a lot of data reported on the hazardous materials manufactured, used, stored, and transported in the United States. Making sure these data are shared with the right people is a key goal for chemical safety.

However, federal agencies do not require industry to report all of this information in consistent formats across agencies. Furthermore, this reported information on hazardous chemicals is generally not available to local emergency planners and responders—the very people who would need quick access to that information during a disaster in their community.

Trying to access, collect, and share all of this information is a challenge for state and local emergency responders trying to prevent the type of chemical disasters that devastated West, Texas, and Geismar, Louisiana, in 2013. Fortunately, however, NOAA and EPA have a suite of software tools—known as CAMEO—that helps make this task a little easier.

One State’s Approach to Better Data Sharing

As required by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), which was passed to help communities plan for emergencies involving hazardous substances, each state, Local Emergency Planning Committee, and local fire department receives hazardous material information via hazardous chemical inventories, or “Tier 2” reports. This information represents one part of the picture for local communities, but as the federal work group pointed out, it is not enough.

Already familiar with the CAMEO software suite, Oklahoma’s state emergency planners decided to use this complementary set of programs to tackle the goal of better sharing chemical safety data, as outlined in Executive Order 13650.

Under EPCRA, each state is required to have a State Emergency Response Commission to oversee the law’s hazardous chemical emergency planning programs. In Oklahoma, the group is known as the Oklahoma Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Commission (OHMERC).

As their first step toward improving chemical data sharing with local planners, OHMERC set out to obtain hazardous material information from the EPA, Department of Homeland Security, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Then, they sought to make that information available to all Oklahoma Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC). Subsequently, these federal agencies began to contact other state representatives to explore avenues to share these data.

Each of the three federal agencies OHMERC contacted provided non-sensitive hazardous material program data—plus the state already had access to some of the information—but these data were in different file formats. Some were contained in spreadsheets, others as PDF files, and still others delivered in text documents. As a result, there was no consistent format for delivering the information to local emergency planners.

Going Local

Oklahoma Local Emergency Planning Committees already use the CAMEO suite of software to manage their Tier 2 (EPA hazardous chemical inventory) reports. As a result, OHMERC decided to use the database program CAMEOfm to deliver additional information from other federal hazardous material programs to these local committees.

For each Tier 2 report, CAMEOfm has an “ID and Regs” section, which typically contains standard identifying codes for each local facility dealing with chemicals. For the appropriate facilities, OHMERC added new designations to the ID fields for the additional regulatory data from the Department of Homeland Security, EPA, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Now, local planners can search CAMEOfm to see which facilities in their jurisdiction are subject to several other hazardous material regulatory programs. If interested, local planners then can contact a facility, inquire why it is regulated by a particular program, gather more information, and plan directly with that facility.

Since all the CAMEOfm records are linked to the MARPLOT mapping program (also part of the CAMEO software suite), Local Emergency Planning Committees now have the information mapped as well. For example, a planner from Tulsa County can search CAMEOfm for locations with chemicals regulated under the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program (CFATS) and the EPA’s Risk Management Plan and Toxics Release Inventory programs. Next, the planner can display the results on a map using MARPLOT.

In addition, Oklahoma facilities regulated under EPA’s Risk Management Plan program have been encouraged to include the non-sensitive parts of their plans in the “Site Plans” section of CAMEOfm. Many, though not all, of these sites did so, realizing this was an effective method to ensure the local first responders had access to that important information.

Getting Data in Ship Shape

Oklahoma’s Local Emergency Planning Committees now have all of this chemical safety information in a consistent format, located in a familiar program where they easily can access it for planning and response efforts.

Screen shot of CAMEOfm record with chemical information of shipment of Bakken crude oil.

Rail lines provide data that Oklahoma’s state emergency planners want to share with the local planning committees. The data include the appropriate Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for Bakken crude oil, along with emergency response personnel and information for that railroad, and a report of the numbers of trains shipping more than 1 million pounds of Bakken crude. This information is added as a CAMEOfm record quickly and easily, in a way that is completely accessible to the responders and planners along with their other CAMEOfm records.

Another timely example of how Oklahoma is using this CAMEOfm and MARPLOT combination is for managing information on rail shipments of Bakken crude oil through the state. Bakken oil is a highly flammable type of oil typically shipped by train from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana and has been involved in a number of high-profile explosions and fires after train cars carrying it have derailed. OHMERC entered this shipment information, provided by the railroads, into CAMEOfm, where it becomes linked to the appropriate railroad map objects in MARPLOT. OHMERC then sends this material in the CAMEOfm and MARPLOT format to the relevant Local Emergency Planning Committees.

Using these programs to better share data is a step that any emergency planner or responder can take. You can find more information about the CAMEO software suite at

This is a guest post by Oklahoma emergency planner Tom Bergman. He is the author of the CAMEO Companion and host of the website. Tom is the EPCRA (Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) Tier 2 Program Manager for the State of Oklahoma and has been a CAMEO trainer for many years. He has conducted CAMEO training courses in Lithuania, Poland, England, Morocco, and 45 U.S. states.


How to Use Your Smartphone to Avoid a Chemical Disaster

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s David Wesley.

Picture this: a call comes in to a fire station—three train cars have derailed. As the responding firefighters race to the scene, news comes over the radio that several chemical containers on board were damaged, some may be leaking their hazardous contents, and somebody mentioned smelling smoke. What should the approaching firefighters do?

Screen shot of CAMEO Chemicals mobile website for the chemical toluene.

From your smartphone you can now view an optimized version of the CAMEO Chemicals website to look up information on chemicals such as toluene. (NOAA)

Fortunately, first responders now have a new place to find the critical information they need in this situation: their smartphone. My office just launched a mobile website version of CAMEO Chemicals, an essential resource for emergency responders.

Because no one could possibly memorize response recommendations for the thousands of hazardous materials shipped across the U.S. or stored in facilities, we developed CAMEO Chemicals as a searchable chemical response encyclopedia.

This kind of quick access to information about a chemical is critical. A hazardous material incident can escalate quickly and, in the case of some toxic gas clouds, can cause harm and then dissipate within minutes.

Because of these factors, responders need to be able to find specific information, for example, whether the spilled chemical will react violently with water. Will it spontaneously combust? What happens if it’s exposed to fire? And they need to know all of this at a moment’s notice.

When time is of the essence, having multiple avenues to this key information can be invaluable. Most hazmat (hazardous material) fire trucks carry print copies of response guides, such as the Emergency Response Guidebook, and many also roll with a laptop onboard with special software installed. One of those software products is our suite of programs called CAMEO (Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations), which includes CAMEO Chemicals and also the mapping application MARPLOT.

The cutting-edge Macintosh SE computer.

The cutting-edge Macintosh SE—on a fire truck near you! This successor to the Macintosh Plus loyally served us CAMEO programmers for years. (NOAA/David Wesley)

CAMEO Chemicals combines a number of data sources, including the Emergency Response Guidebook. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA have been partnering to keep this tool updated since the first version was installed on a Macintosh Plus computer and bolted to a table on a hazmat fire truck back in the 1980s.

(Actually, our office first created a Microsoft DOS version—but then switched to Macintosh, because Apple’s newfangled concept of using a mouse to navigate a computer seemed like the perfect, easy-to-use solution for firefighters.)

A view of the original CAMEO Chemicals, created using the Macintosh software program HyperCard and called "RIDS" (Response Information Data Sheet).

Before there was the World Wide Web, there was this. One of the earliest versions of CAMEO Chemicals was called “RIDS” (Response Information Data Sheet). (NOAA)

Having CAMEO Chemicals installed on a laptop computer can be crucial if, say, you are responding to an area hit by a tornado and there is no internet connection or cellular service available.

But getting software installed by information technology staff can be difficult for some organizations, as is keeping it up-to-date. As a result, we released an online version of CAMEO Chemicals in 2007. Having it available on the web means anyone—such as a police officer—who is suddenly responding to a chemical accident can get this information on the fly.

This year, with the rising ubiquity of smartphones, the time seemed right to release a version of the website customized for mobile devices. Now, as of August 2012, a first responder with nothing more than a phone (with access to the Internet) can navigate thousands of chemicals with just the swipe of a finger.

A student from the nearby University of Washington joined our team in Seattle, Wash., and developed this mobile version of the CAMEO Chemicals website over the course of the summer. Thanks to him (and the EPA and NOAA, of course), emergency responders now have one more tool to add to their toolbox.

Dave WesleyDavid Wesley is a software developer and project manager for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He has worked on numerous versions of CAMEO—as well as other projects for chemical and oil spill response—over the years. He first started working on CAMEO back when it was developed in HyperCard on early Macintosh computers.

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Mapping Safety, the Free and Easy Way

This is a guest post by emergency planner Tom Bergman. All links leave this blog.

Many of you are familiar with Google Maps or MapQuest, examples of free online mapping tools that have probably saved you from driving around lost for hours. But I bet you haven’t heard of another free mapping tool, known as MARPLOT, which has definitely saved more than a few people’s lives.

Back in 1986, NOAA and Environmental Protection Agency staff created MARPLOT, along with several other programs in a software suite called CAMEO, to help emergency planners and responders deal with chemical spills. Even today, the CAMEO software programs remain popular tools for hazardous material releases worldwide. One of these programs, CAMEOfm, gives anyone the ability to create and place custom objects (like a hospital or school) on a MARPLOT map and link those objects to data (like the hospital’s emergency contact information) stored in the CAMEOfm database.

But I can tell you that this software doesn’t only come in handy when a truck full of chemicals tips over next to a hospital. MARPLOT, when linked up with the database application CAMEOfm, is regularly operated as a free and easy-to-use Geographic Information System (GIS). One of the attractive features of these two programs is that they operate independently of any internet or server connection. This can be critical for responders during emergencies, when internet and cell phone service may simply not be available.

Aerial view of tornado damage to downtown West Liberty, Kentucky.

An aerial view of the damage to downtown West Liberty, Ky, after the March 2, 2012, EF3 tornado hit the area. (NOAA/National Weather Service/Allen Bolling)

This was certainly the case on March 2, 2012, when a category EF3 tornado struck the Kentucky town of West Liberty with winds between 136–165 miles per hour.  When the Urban Search and Rescue team arrived on scene from Lexington, Ky., they discovered that the severe weather had disabled the area’s internet and cell phone service.

Fortunately, the local emergency manager was able to supply search and rescue team commander Gregg Bayer with a laptop computer which had MARPLOT installed with local map data and aerial photos of the affected region. They quickly were able to organize their search efforts and create customized maps by drawing search zones and map symbols directly on top of aerial photos. The MARPLOT program was instrumental in helping the emergency responders get familiar with the area, document suspected paths of destruction, and obtain 2010 U.S. Census estimates for the number of people and buildings affected—all without internet, cell phone, or server access.

A month later, on April 4, 2012, an even stronger tornado (rated EF4) ravaged northeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Kansas. Several area counties used MARPLOT and CAMEOfm to track the path of the tornado and then document and manage information related to recovery efforts, including photographs and videos of the storm damage.

Since 2009, a school district in Orlando, Fla., has been making extensive use of these free tools to develop high quality maps for emergency planning activities. To prepare for Florida’s not-unusual hurricanes, the district’s emergency manager, Joe Mastandrea, combines school facility information in MARPLOT with predicted storm paths imported from the hurricane-tracking program HURREVAC 2010. This helps the school district know which schools might be affected (and to what degree) by an approaching storm and be ready to keep everyone safe.

Map view of schools possibly affected by severe weather.

In this view of MARPLOT, you can see two schools which might be affected by a severe weather event in Orlando, Fla.

Another, completely different, application of this software has started recently in a number of Oklahoma counties: taking inventory of their road signs. The county evaluates each of its road or highway signs using a “reflectometer,” an instrument that predicts the sign’s anticipated lifespan. The information from the reflectometer is imported into MARPLOT, which plots the sign’s location and allows users to search and display the data for each sign. By tracking when each sign needs to be replaced with a new, more reflective sign, the counties can make roads safer for drivers traveling at night.

In the reality of counties with only 3,000 people and no paid firefighters, emergency staff can’t afford to hire GIS specialists (much less the fancy software) to do this kind of work. Fortunately, they can afford to download the free MARPLOT and other CAMEO suite software and easily put it to use.

The CAMEO staff at NOAA and EPA are constantly revising and improving all the CAMEO programs. Do you have your own experiences using the CAMEO programs?  You can post and read stories about CAMEO software suite usage at For more information about obtaining the CAMEO programs, visit and

Tom Bergman is the author of the CAMEO Companion and host of the website.  Tom is the EPCRA (Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) Tier 2 Program Manager for the State of Oklahoma and has been a CAMEO trainer for many years.  He has conducted CAMEO training courses in Lithuania, Poland, England, and 43 U.S. states.