Working Group makes recommendations about resources, responsibilities and authority to improve response for future emergencies

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The working group formed to review the response to the fire at the vegetative waste disposal site near Moody in St. Clair County is recommending the state take steps to clarify  authority and responsibilities that hindered the response, as well as determine the feasibility of having available vetted contractors who have experience putting out large, underground fires.

The working group of legislators, government agency leaders and association heads said the fire was  “unprecedented” in its nature and scope, and that local and state governments lacked the equipment and expertise to extinguish the fire in a timely manner. Ultimately, the group’s report said, the only available entity with the timely ability to extinguish the fire was a private contractor pre-vetted and retained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management formed the working group in March to examine the state and local government response to the fire; identify shortcomings or gaps in authority that hampered the response; assess whether changes in laws, regulations and resources are needed; and make recommendations to the Legislature and governor to ensure state and local governments are better prepared for similar emergencies in the future.

The working group included state Sen. Lance Bell, R-Pell City, state Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, and leaders of several government agencies and associations. Bell’s and Garrett’s districts include the Moody area.

“We have never seen this type of emergency – a large, underground fire emitting smoke affecting possibly thousands of residents and businesses – in this state before, and we simply were not equipped to deal with it,” Sen. Bell said.

Other members of the working group were:

  • Lance LeFleur, director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management
  • Jeff Smitherman, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency
  • Rick Oates, state forester with the Alabama Forestry Commission
  • Rick Pate, commissioner of Agriculture and Industries
  • Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama
  • Greg Cochran, executive director of the Alabama League of Municipalities

The working group’s report said state and local agencies’ response to the fire was hampered by “the lack of experience in responding to events outside of the usual extreme weather events and natural disasters typically managed under the EOP [Emergency Operations Plan], the lack of government equipment and trained personnel to extinguish a fire of this type and magnitude, the lack of available vetted response contractors on retainer,” as well as legal concerns about the authority to take action on private property.

“We need to make sure everyone who should have a responsibility during an emergency, from the local government to state agencies, knows what his or her role should be,” Rep. Garrett said. “It also needs to be clear to everyone involved what the criteria are for activating the emergency plan.”

Under the EOP, a State Coordinating Group (SCG), comprised of representatives of various state agencies with responsibilities for responding to emergencies, can be called to determine whether an incident rises to the level of an emergency. The state EMA is responsible for calling the SCG into action and for coordinating with other agencies, but any state agency or local government can request that the EMA activate the SCG.

ADEM “had no responsibility to act in response to fires under the state EOP, and no firefighting ability,” the report said.

Among other recommendations by the working group:

  • The state EMA should establish a Unified Command to monitor the fire, which continues to smolder at the site.
  • The state EMA should provide training to local EMA officials to ensure they are knowledgeable of their role and responsibilities under the EOP.
  • Residents affected by the fire near Moody should be advised to file claims with their insurance providers and to contact the Alabama Department of Insurance if they have questions about their insurance.

Click here to read the working group’s full report and recommendations.