Toolkit from NVFC and PHMSA Helps Departments Eliminate Some of the Guesswork in Pipeline Response

By Tom Miller and David Bullard

As of April 2020, there were 301,960 miles of natural gas transmission lines in the United States along with 17,414 miles of gathering and 1,328,271 miles of distribution lines. There are an additional 218,851 miles of liquid transport lines in service in the U.S. The footprint touches all 50 states and poses a response consideration for approximately 85 percent of the nation’s fire service.

Most natural gas incidents involve either motor vehicle crashes where a service meter is taken out, an incident related to construction where a piece of equipment strikes a line, or a leak from a fitting or appliance inside of a structure. Ground subsidence or mud/rockslides account for another group of incidents. Pipe failures and/or catastrophic failures are low frequency but potentially high impact events.

According to the Significant Incident Consequences Summary released by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), pipeline incidents between 2005-2017 resulted in 168 fatalities, 592 injuries, and over $5.4 billion in total costs. The September 9, 2010, San Bruno (CA) pipeline explosion resulted in an 8-alarm fire and eight fatalities. The explosion left a crater 187 feet long, 26 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. A December 2012 incident in Sissonville (WV) destroyed multiple homes and incinerated an 800-foot section of Interstate 77 both North and Southbound. These types of events, although rare, can require a rapid mobilization of complex resources and a solid working knowledge of the NIMS process.

While the industry and regulators have come a long way in the past 75 years towards making the transmission of natural gas and liquids much safer, the presence of pipelines and the fact that a high impact incident can occur means your department needs to be prepared. This planning process can seem overwhelming. We often hear, “Where do we start?” “What information do we need?” or, “We’ll deal with it when it happens.” Fire departments and emergency managers need to take a proactive approach to planning for these types of events.

Toward that end, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) teamed up with PHMSA and other fire service and industry partners to develop the Fire Department Pipeline Response, Emergency Planning, and Preparedness (FD-PREPP) Toolkit. This toolkit is designed to provide front-line first response organizations with information, tools, and resources that they can use in the planning, training, and response aspects of a pipeline incident. The toolkit is available at no charge to fire departments and emergency response organizations.

To make it easier to navigate, the FD-PREPP Toolkit is divided into five sections. The first section focuses on pre-planning. Resources to help with conducting a risk assessment, developing a pre-incident plan, and utilizing the National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS) are included in this section.

The second component in the toolkit covers consensus standards and regulations that pertain to pipeline operations and response. First responders will find the Incident Command System (ICS) form templates very useful should there be an incident. The ICS forms included in this section are pre-filled with key response considerations and information that should factor into response operations. The forms address both spills and leaks and include variations such as with fire and without fire. These forms were developed by first responders for first responders.

The third section contains a pipeline operator contact template that can be used by fire departments, emergency managers, and others to track a list of key pipeline contacts in their jurisdiction(s). Establishing and maintaining operator contacts can be essential to successful outcomes should an incident occur. Both transmission and distribution operators are required to provide outreach training to fire departments that respond to their systems. States are developing Pipeline Emergency Response Initiative (PERI) programs to aid in the delivery of these programs. Having a relationship for planning and training with their pipeline operators is key for an agency to provide a successful response and operate more smoothly in a unified command.

The fourth component of the toolkit contains information on training programs that fire departments and emergency managers can use to get more information on how to respond to a pipeline emergency. These training resources have been vetted by the toolkit authors and contain both emergency services and industry-based resources.

The final component of the FD-PREPP Toolkit directly addresses the response to pipeline incidents or events. There is an incident workflow job aid template that can be printed and laminated for ready use on scene. A sample pipeline incident organization chart is provided so the IC can get an idea of what job roles and functions may need to be filled or staffed. Flammability reference charts are also included to help with establishing safety zones, along with a sample site safety plan for overall scene operations. Lastly, a safe response checklist is provided as a tool for ICs to help maintain the focus on safety during all incident operations.

As stated before, all of the tools in the FD-PREPP Toolkit were designed by first responders for use by first responders. Our goal was to help agencies adequately plan for and respond to pipeline incidents in a manner which helps ensure the safety of all involved. When a department receives training with or about their local operators, the items in the toolkit can be used as a starting point and then refined to the specific concerns of their area and their operators. The toolkit is a living resource and will be updated periodically to help meet the ever-changing needs of the first response community.

Make sure your department is ready before disaster strikes. Download this important, free planning and preparedness resource now at

Tom Miller is the West Virginia director for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), chair of the NVFC Hazmat Response Committee, and represents the NVFC on the NFPA 470 technical committee. He is also a member of the Sissonville (WV) Volunteer Fire Department and active in the West Virginia State Firemen’s Association. David Bullard is a board member and instructor for the Georgia Pipeline Emergency Response Initiative and Georgia director for the NVFC, member of the NVFC Hazmat Response Committee, and represents the NVFC on the NFPA 1021 Technical Committee. He is a lieutenant with Columbia County (GA) Fire Rescue and president of the Georgia State Firefighters Association.