In June, fierce winds swept embers from the Sleepy Hollow Fire outside of Wenatchee into a commercial area, igniting material first at a recycling center, then at a nearby fruit packing plant. The blaze soon threatened tanks holding thousands of pounds of ammonia and other toxic chemicals. When the Washington Department of Ecology’s spill response unit was called in, they brought a new tool to the scene: their cell phones.
Just before the Sleepy Hollow Fire broke out, Ecology’s Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction program began piloting a new smartphone app that allows emergency responders to access data on what chemicals are stored at a facility and in what quantity.
“This is a game-changer for us,” David Byers, Ecology’s spill response manager, said of the app. “Having this has paid off for us, improving the safety of responders and the public.”
Knowing what chemicals are on site allows first responders – both Ecology’s own spill teams and local police and firefighters – to choose the right safety gear and take steps to protect themselves and nearby residents.
Ecology already collects this information under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, or EPCRA, on behalf of the State Emergency Response Commission. The commission requested Ecology’s help in making the information available on cell phones. Until now, the information was kept in paper records or on computer spreadsheets, and responders needed to request the latest data from Ecology to get updates.
“I believe it will help save lives,” said Chief Bill Whealan, chairman of the State Emergency Response Commission. “It’s all about safety and being as prepared as possible. I’m excited to share this with our fire chiefs, battalion chiefs and emergency medical services personnel.”
The Washington State EPCRA app is the first mobile app Ecology has produced – and the first EPCRA mobile app available in the entire country. Along with information on the chemicals themselves, the app provides directions, gives responders access to facility contacts and provides other information.
Ecology began piloting the app with a version for Android phones and recently launched an Apple version for iPhones. Although the app itself is free and available in the official app stores, downloading the emergency data requires an access key from Ecology to ensure the tool is used by authorized emergency responders.