Tianjin City Port Explosion: Lessons in Risk Assessment, Mitigation, and Response Interoperability

As of the 19th of August 2015, although we are only one week after the explosions at the Port of Tianjin China, there have been indications of the gaps in preventable measures that would have served to mitigate or minimize the human and economic tolls faced by the community. It is likely in the next 7 days that we will learn 1) there had not been a credible risk assessment completed 2) the fire service had not been provided proper access to documents around the hazardous materials present 3) there had not been proper exercising completed, commensurate with the risk 4) this incident was preventable.

Based upon the current scale of devastation there still exists a fog around the emerging details pre and post explosions. It would appear that 114 persons, including 53 firefighters and 7 Police Officers, have been killed. 64 others are missing, 674 hospitalized, and 30,000 evacuated (NY Times, 19 Aug. 2015). Operations at the port as well as throughout the entire highly populated city have been disrupted. Details are still being investigated but the media releases from authorities paint a picture of confusion and are suggesting this incident was likely a preventable tragedy.

Similar to the most recent spill of petroleum products at the Port of Vancouver, the finger pointing and blame is beginning. Arrests of personnel have been made within the Tianjin Dongjiang Port Ruihai International Logistics Company. In addition, there are assertions that the fire service applied water to calcium carbide and that exploding acetylene caused a chain reaction or cascading counter productive effect (BBC News, 2015).

Cascading or Cumulative Effects

Clearly the risk assessment process and modelling of the dozen or so hazardous materials did not account for possibility of their interactions. Quantitative analysis of all factors that may contribute to a hazardous event is necessary when assessing the risk of major accidents to the surrounding population (CRAIM, 2007). Scenario modelling and exercising did not take into account reasonable worst-case release of one chemical affecting or interacting with another. With proper dispersion and thermal modelling based upon predictable meteorological conditions and maximum quantities handled; distancing, operational handling procedures, and isolation/ barriers could have been put in place to interrupt the cascading effect that resulted in the tragedy. Within communities in North America, the MIACC approach to quantifying cumulative risk recognizes the total effects of multiple operations and applies recognized standards like ISO, CSA, and NFPA and helps to eliminate or minimizes cumulative risk. As seen in this instance, domino effects can be linked directly by one incident triggering another or indirectly by affecting the ability of operators and responders to safely initiate emergency procedures (CRAIM, 2007).

Information Interoperability


It is alarming to hear authorities that represent the port and fire service citing that documents about the hazardous materials manifests were “destroyed in the fire” (BBC NEWS, 2015). For the community and the fire service to have properly planned, trained, exercised and evaluated the risk present at the Port facility, there should have been ongoing and up to date exchange of information of the hazardous materials present on site and within the surrounding area.

A number of existing emergency management software solutions exist and are in operation in North America to assist with ensuring that planners and responders are provided with timely information to make strategic and tactical decisions (i.e. D-LAN, WebEOC, Sentinel Systems). Risk management is an interactive and multilateral process that involves able communication and actions by both citizens and stakeholders. Poor management of communication during an incident fosters loss of credibility, mistrust on the part of the public, and confusion decreasing the safety of responders and the public (CRAIM, 2007).

Although it is too soon to finalize the lessons learned for this tragedy, it has been indicated that there was an insufficient amount of risk assessment, planning, enforcement and exercising completed to offset the risk created by the interdependencies between the operations (storage facilities). It was totally unacceptable for responders to lack understanding of the chemicals stored at the facility. Had they, through the training and exercising regime, been made aware of the reasonable worst-case scenario, undoubtedly they would have had the knowledge, skills and information needed to mitigate the incident when the initial fire started. We saw a similar lesson learned in 2013 at West, Texas. It will be interesting to see in the fullness of time whether leaders within the Municipality of Tianjin, under the Government of China, will be held accountable in relation to the levels of staffing, budget for training, technology and exercising available to responders, should it be found that the depth of organization did not align with the level of risk at the facility.

It has been found, time and time again, that the effort provided in the process of risk assessment, planning, training, exercising and evaluation is critical in preventing these sort of human and economic man-made catastrophes. It is unacceptable that companies, government responders and the community are not working together to require the highest level of planning and interoperability solutions, ensuring that fires and explosions of this magnitude do not occur. The costs of the impact of incidents like to one in Tianjin cannot be fully calculated; however a programmatic approach, which would have served to prevent this tragedy, is quantifiable and costs exponentially less.

About the author:

Mark leads the ESI team in conducting risk assessments, training, program, and plan review, exercise scenario development, exercise facilitation, and evaluation as well as compiling final After Action Review documentation and recommendations. Under Mark’s leadership, there have been six (6) Federal research and development projects conceived and executed by the ESI team. Service has been provided for various critical infrastructures, such as Port Saint John, Point Lepreau Generating Station, Canaport Liquefied Natural Gas, Saint John Energy, as well as corporations like Atlantic Potash, Mead Johnson Nutrition, and the Mosaic Company.